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Saturday, 01 September 2007

Image Four medical students (Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt), led by the brooding and manipulative Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland), attempt to learn what, if anything lies beyond death. The group uses drug-induced heart cessation and body-temperature reduction to bring a person to the point of clinical brain (and body) death. They then wait, 30 seconds or more, then violently bring the subject back to life, employing heart paddles to jump-start the failed heart, injections of drugs and by rapidly raising the body temperature. What each of them experiences during their post-death periods are unique and personal to each, but the bottom-line discovery is that something beyond death awaits them.

In the real world, Nelson finds himself pursued and attacked by a little boy in a red hooded pullover; David (Bacon) keeps seeing the little girl he picked on when he was a child; Rachel (Roberts) keeps having flashes of her father, moments before his suicide; Joe (Baldwin) is haunted by accusing images of the women with whom he secretly taped their sexual encounters. As Nelson becomes increasingly tormented by his pursuing specter, the group begins to deeply fear that the door they opened to death may have unleashed insoluble torments upon them. Director Joel Schumacher’s thriller is visually impressive and capably told, but is ultimately a bit unsatisfying. It’s interesting how single-minded the story is, which may link to with having characters who are all driven by obsessions. Characters like Rachel (who attends a dying old woman) and Joe (who is a bit of sex pig, even though he’s engaged) are shown to have something else going on, but rather slightly. The script’s single-minded focus and lack of interest in enriching its characters by expanding their circle or elaborating further on them makes the film a little narrow in focus. Joe is engaged but we see virtually nothing substantial between him and his fiancée except their eventual break-up. Because the characters travel in such a narrow circle and willingly participate in the experiments (even Steckle, played by Oliver Platt, who is vocally resistant, but assists anyway), it makes it seem as if there’s less at stake. If one or more of them were to be killed by their own internal demons or apparitions, would we really feel that much of a loss? They all seem somewhat alone, anyway.

The medical information is probably bollocks or implausible to say the least, particularly the rather quick recovery of each of them from their near-death experiences. They’re essentially recovering from heart attacks and long instances of brain-death, but apparently a good warm blanket and some soup apparently does the trick quite nicely. Their symptoms are more akin to a 24-hour cold than to drug and paddle-induced myocardial infarction. Surely such trauma to the body and brain would have long-term consequences, beyond being chased by nasty moppets in red hoodies?

The implausibility of the science or how their experiments go undiscovered (even though they are conducting them in a large public historical building undergoing restoration) are weaknesses, but they’re more apparent after viewing the film. The story itself keeps your focus away from such issues, and while the film runs it paves over those holes quite easily.

On paper, the figure of guilt pursuing Nelson might read as silly, but it’s given a strong sense of menace by the filmmakers, and is helped by the visible damage it causes. The manifestation of the other characters’ guilt and their need for karmic redress would seem to convey that the afterlife is a uniquely personal world where you are haunted by your wrongs and guilt. While all the characters redeem their past wrongs, what death would be afterward is not expounded upon. There’s something rather weak and unscary about the film once the characters have figured out what the apparitions are after. Balance seems very easily achieved. The middle section is pregnant with fear that something larger has followed them back from the realm of death and is pursuing them, but what’s going on is really kind of banal. Soft, even. It strikes me that perhaps choosing characters that are relatively young stacks the deck against them having done anything really dark in their pasts. Nelson is responsible for the accidental death of a child when he was young, but the rest of the character’s issues are nowhere as painful. Perhaps if the story had been designed so that two students came up with the idea and three older professors worked with them, they might have been able to show the well of regrets, mistakes and guilt that an older, well-lived character might carry. Plus, it would also feature a character much more fragile in body that might not survive the manifestation of his guilt and would allow the film to explore “what lies beyond” even further…But I digress.

Curiously, what is essentially a horror-thriller ends up in the land of the touchy-feely emotional picture, which in this case is somewhat disappointing. For a while the characters seem to be on the cusp of having a dark abyss open beneath them, but it never happens. The message of the film also shifts from the “don’t temper in God’s domain” standard to an indistinct one that’s a bit hard to pin down. Since none of the characters really pays for these foolhardy and rash experiments, the film is left encouraging them, which seems a bit odd.

The idea of combining of horror and heartache must have been floating in the zeitgeist in 1990. Both “Ghost” and “Jacob’s Ladder” joined “Flatliners” in the “touching terror” sweepstakes, with different emphases. In “Ghost” the supernatural and the afterlife are more positive (tunnels of light included), except for the brief instance at the end where the indistinct dark emissaries claim the dead villain and drag him down…to hell, presumably. “Jacob’s Ladder” makes its supernatural elements scary by placing them in a dreamlike, hallucinatory reality whose reasons are part of the central narrative puzzle. Overall, “Jacob’s Ladder” is the more satisfying balance of the genres, but “The Sixth Sense” trumped it several years later.

Following a thoroughly miserable-looking, grainy Columbia Pictures logo is a fairly pleasing high-definition transfer. Imagery is detailed and stable, which is most noticeable in wide shots. Overall, though the film is very grainy, with a challenging visual look that is occasionally troublesome. Scenes that are bathed in a reddish hue are somewhat soft and smudgy. The grainy appearance of the film is more of an artistic choice than a disc problem; if anything the prevalent grain is filmic in nature and not generated by digital noise or compression artifacts. It’s not much of a visual demo, but aurally, it’s terrific. The uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound is crisp and vibrant with bold and frequent use of split surrounds. The music and sound effects are given tremendous weight, dynamic intensity and presence throughout for in an involving surround mix. The mix volume is set fairly loud; be sure to crank up the opening choral music, or you’ll miss the first line of dialogue. There are no extras, not even a trailer. The cover art is absolute rubbish and an embarrassment to the art department.

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