(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) My memory may be playing tricks on me, because I remembered Backdraft as a more iconic film than this second viewing suggests. Despite the far better picture quality of watching this in HD as compared to standard television (maybe VHS) resolution, the film feels a bit smaller this time around. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I still think Backdraft is the iconic firefighting movie. Fire plays a lead character in the film, the script manages to play with enough suspense elements to keep things interesting. Ron Howard’s direction is the apogee of early-nineties slickness, while a group of great actors do interesting things together, from a dynamic Robert de Niro (back when he wasn’t playing a caricature of himself), to the incomparable Kurt Russell to an unusually strong turn by William Baldwin. Even Donald Sutherland (seemingly as old then as he is now) turns up in a pair of memorable scenes. The firefighting action sequences remain unparallelled, especially than last scenes with the exploding barrels. But in my mind, I had built up Backdraft as something a bit more grandiose than it is. I’m certainly not calling for a remake, but I’m welcoming this as a reminder not to set my expectations too high as I revisit blockbuster movies I haven’t seen in a long time.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) For years, I wondered missing out on Flatliners had led to an embarrassing omission in my movie-going culture. Hadn’t this film earned some interest as a science-fiction film? Didn’t it star a bunch of actors who went on to bigger things? Wasn’t this one of Joel Shumacher’s best-known movies from his earlier, better period? The answer to these questions is yes… but the film itself seems a bit of a letdown after viewing. Oh, some things still work well, and may even work better than expected. Of the five main actors, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt have all gone on to big careers –with poor William Baldwin being left behind. Schumacher’s direction is backed-up with Jan de Bont’s impressive cinematography: the visuals of the film may not make much sense, but they evoke a modern-gothic atmosphere that remains distinctive even today. The high-concept of the film remains potent, with genius-level medical students voluntarily defying death to investigate the mysteries of the afterlife. Unfortunately, all of these elements don’t quite add up satisfyingly. The jump from the high concept to the characters’ personification of those concepts is weak, and the contrivances become almost too big to ignore. The idea of atonement being closely linked to death is powerful, but the way this variously follows the character is more difficult to accept. (As Platt’s character knowingly remarks, those without deep-seated traumas will end up with some fairly silly phantoms.) There is quite a bit of repetitive one-upmanship in the way the plotting unfolds, and Flatliners sadly goes too quickly from provocative idea to ordinary morality. Still, it’s easy to argue that the film is worth a look: Roberts, Sutherland and Bacon look really good in early roles, and the visual style of the film is still an achievement twenty years later. There are some good ideas in the mix (witness the visual motif of “construction” -reconstruction, deconstruction- underlying nearly each scene), the portrait of intelligent characters interacting is charming and some of the suspense still works surprisingly well when it doesn’t descend in silliness. There are a few films that qualify as “minor classics” of their era in time. While Flatliners certainly won’t climb year’s-best lists retroactively, it’s a film that remains more remarkable than many of its contemporaries. I don’t regret seeing it… and I may even have liked to see it a bit earlier.