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This article is about the film. For the ska punk band, see The Flatliners. For the drug, see 4-Methylthioamphetamine.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Produced by
Written by Peter Filardi
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography Jan de Bont
Edited by Robert Brown
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • July 27, 1990 (1990-07-27) (United States, original)
  • August 10, 1990 (1990-08-10) (United States, wide)
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $26 million[1]
Box office $61.5 million

Flatliners is a 1990 American science fiction psychological horror film directed by Joel Schumacher, produced by Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber, and written by Peter Filardi. It stars Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon. The film is about five medical students that attempt to find out what lies beyond death and they conduct clandestine experiments that produce near-death experiences. The film was shot between October 1989 and January 1990,[2] and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing in 1990 (Charles L. Campbell and Richard C. Franklin). The film was theatrically released on August 10, 1990, by Columbia Pictures.


Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland), convinces four of his medical school classmates — Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), Dave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt) and Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts) — to help him discover what lies beyond death. To do this they must stop his heart, producing a flat line graph on the heart monitor signal. Nelson flatlines for one minute before his classmates resuscitate him. While "dead", he experiences a sort of afterlife. He sees a vision of a boy he bullied as a child, Billy Mahoney. He merely tells his friends that he can't describe what he saw, but something is there. The others decide to follow Nelson's daring feat. Joe flatlines next, and he experiences an erotic afterlife sequence. He agrees with Nelson's claim that something indeed exists. Dave is third to flatline, and he sees a vision of a girl, Winnie Hicks (Kesha Reed), that he bullied in grade school. The three men start to experience vivid hallucinations that are related to their afterlife visions, but Nelson's circumstances are particularly freakish; he is repeatedly physically attacked by Billy Mahoney and each day presents with fresh cuts and wounds. Joe, engaged to be married, is haunted by home videos that he secretly filmed of his sexual trysts with other women. Dave is confronted by a vision of Winnie Hicks on a train, and she verbally taunts him like he did to her.

At Rachel's insistence, the group agrees to let her flatline next. Dave, disturbed by his hallucinations, has a change of heart and tries to stop the others from giving Rachel their same fate, but she has already flatlined by the time he arrives. They are almost unable to bring Rachel back to life after the power goes out, as the men cannot shock her with the defibrillator paddles. Luckily they manage to resuscitate her, but she, too, begins experiencing haunting flashbacks: in her case, memories of her father, a Vietnam War veteran, committing suicide when she was a young girl. One by one, the other men open up about their harrowing experiences to one another, and Dave decides to put his visions to a stop. He tracks down a now-grown-up Winnie Hicks (Kimberly Scott), travels to her home, and offers an apology. Winnie thanks him, and accepts his apology. Dave immediately feels a weight lifted off his shoulders. Nelson, who has accompanied Dave on the trip, remains alone in Dave's truck and catches a glimpse of Billy Mahoney darting past outside. Suddenly Billy appears inside the truck and attacks him with a pickaxe. Nelson struggles to fend him off and Dave arrives on the scene just in time to end the hallucination and prevent serious injury to Nelson, revealing that Nelson was alone in the truck and that he was attacking himself with the pickaxe. Meanwhile, Joe's fiancée Anne (Hope Davis) unexpectedly comes to his apartment, and she breaks off their engagement after discovering his videos. Joe's visions cease after Anne leaves him. Rachel seeks comfort in the arms of Dave, and the two spend the night together in bed. While Rachel and Dave are together, Nelson brings Steckle and Joe to the grave site of Billy Mahoney. He reveals a long-kept secret: he and his friends accidentally killed Billy and his dog, as youngsters when they chased Billy up a tree and pelted him with rocks, causing a branch to fall and break, crushing the dog, and causing Billy to fall to his death. Nelson mutters to himself about making amends, then suddenly storms off, leaving Joe and Steckle stranded.

Dave leaves Rachel alone in order to pick up Joe and Steckle from the cemetery. While alone, Rachel goes to the bathroom, and encounters her father. He apologizes to his daughter, and her guilt over his death is lifted when she discovers that he was addicted to heroin. Rachel receives a phone call from Nelson, who tells her that he needs to flatline again in order to make amends. He apologizes for involving her and their friends in his plan before hanging up. Rachel and the other three men realize what Nelson is planning and race to save him, eventually reaching him more than nine minutes after his phone call. They work feverishly to save him, but too much time has passed and they decide to give up. Meanwhile, in the afterlife a young Nelson has reversed roles with Billy Mahoney and is being pelted with rocks by him and his other friends while up in the tree. Young Nelson falls from the tree, morphing into the older Nelson just before hitting the ground. He looks up to see Billy Mahoney standing over him and smiling before slowly walking away into a bright light with his dog walking beside him, having made peace. In an act of utter frustration, Dave gives Nelson one last shock. Miraculously, Nelson is resuscitated, and after regaining consciousness he tells them, "Today wasn't a good day to die."



Columbia Pictures released Flatliners theatrically on August 10, 1990. The film debuted at No.1[3] and took in $10 million on its opening weekend.[4] It grossed $61.5 million total in the US.[5]


Upon its release Flatliners received mixed reviews. While the film was praised for its overall premise and striking visual style, as well as the strong cast, it was criticized in some quarters for descending into silliness. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 48% of critics give the film a positive review based on 42 reviews.[6] In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, "when taken on its own stylish terms, Flatliners is greatly entertaining. Viewers are likely to go along with this film instantly or else ridicule it to death. Its atmospheric approach doesn't admit much middle ground."[7] Critic Roger Ebert praised the film as "an original, intelligent thriller, well-directed by Joel Schumacher" and called the cast "talented young actors, [who] inhabit the shadows with the right mixture of intensity, fear and cockiness." But Ebert criticized Flatliners for "plot manipulation that is unworthy of the brilliance of its theme. I only wish it had been restructured so we didn't need to go through the same crisis so many times."[8] Similarly, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine praised the film's young stars, but complained that "by dodging the questions it raises about life after death, Flatliners ends up tripping on timidity. It's a movie about daring that dares nothing."[9] Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "D" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "What isn't in evidence is the sort of overheated lunacy that made the William Hurt speed-freak trip movie Altered States (1980) such delectable trash. Flatliners is camp, but of a very low order. Schumacher is too intent on pandering to the youth market to take the mad risks and plunges that make for a scintillating bad movie."[10] In contrast, The Washington Post's Rita Kempley loved the film, calling it: "a heart-stopping, breathtakingly sumptuous haunted house of a movie".[11] The excessive use of defibrillators has been criticized as medical nonsense, since they do not help in case of an asystole.[citation needed]



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