`Flatliners' Takes It To The Limit - And Keeps Going

XX 1/2 ``Flatliners,'' with Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt. Directed by Joel Schumacher, from a script by Peter Filardi. Factoria, Gateway, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kirkland Parkplace, Oak Tree, Renton Village, Uptown Cinemas. ``R'' - Restricted, due to language.


There's always something going on in ``Flatliners,'' a new brat-pack thriller about medical students experimenting with after-life experiences. It's certainly never boring.

How could it be? Every 10 minutes someone's dying, being brought back to life, reliving a childhood trauma, undergoing a religious experience, or working out his/her destiny. The title refers to the experience of being literally dead for a few minutes, with heart stopped and vital signs missing. This group of ``flatliners'' has perfected the art of reaching the stage at which the body stops functioning, then coming back to tell about it.

Unfortunately the script, written by Peter Filardi (``Miami Vice'') and directed by Joel Schumacher

(``The Lost Boys''), never adds up to much more than excitement for its own sake. And sometimes the filmmakers are so busy whipping themselves into a frenzy that they risk ridicule.

In several scenes, the students play a macho game of pushing themselves to the limit, risking three, then four, then five minutes in the death state. As they challenge each other, they begin to sound like insane bidders at some mad-scientist auction, and the movie becomes briefly, unintentionally hilarious.

It's a lot less funny, and more intriguing, when the students come back from the dead to find that they can't shake off some long-suppressed guilt or fear. Ultimately these emotions are worked out in the banal manner of such psychological thrillers as ``Spellbound'' and ``The Trip,'' yet it's still quite unnerving to see the students confronted with images from the past that have such a grip on their perceptions and behavior. Jan De Bont's atmospheric cinematography is a big plus in conveying the depth of feeling behind these acid flashbacks.

Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon all bring conviction to these scenes, and William Baldwin, as the most irresponsible of the students, continues to suggest an electric screen presence that rivals his brother Alec. Their performances lend the movie a touch of class, even if they can't make up for the superficial writing and Schumacher's anything-for-a-jolt direction.