By Ralph Novak
August 20, 1990 12:00 PM

Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts

A bizarre speculation on what happens to people after they die, this movie starts out as if it’s heading for a confirmation of the Christian viewpoint. Then it seems to veer toward the modern notions suggested by “near death” experiences before finally settling on a psychoanalytical explanation. That goes Jesus to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to Freud, if you’re scoring.

Sutherland, Bacon and Roberts are medical students in Chicago who, with classmates William (Internal Affairs) Baldwin and Oliver (Married to the Mob) Platt, begin a series of experiments in which they take turns being rendered brain-dead, then revived, so they can see what happens.

Director Joel (St. Elmo’s Fire) Schumacher stages the experiments to suggest Frankensteinian doings. But then the script, by newcomer Peter Filardi, hardly seems concerned with plausibility. The death trips are part travelogue, part bad dream, and they quickly start to pall with the same scene basically being repeated five times.

Although he is the moving force behind the experiments, Sutherland never seems charismatic enough to convince anyone to smoke a joint, let alone agree to “die.” And the rest of the cast, while competent, faces complicated philosophical issues with absurd dialogue. (Roberts agrees to the experiment by saying, “I’ve had people [die] that are close to me. I want to make sure they’ve gone to a nice place.” Bacon, looking skyward, yells out, “I’m sorry, Lord, we stepped on your f—— territory.”)

Not to reveal too much, but Flatliners indicates that when you die you don’t encounter friendly lights or the nightmare guys from Ghost or the One Great Scorer who has marked against your name. Instead you meet your own idea of your worst sins. Baldwin, for instance, is confronted with the fact that he secretly videotapes lovemaking sessions with various women.

Note: It’s not a deity or other agency judging how well people live their lives. It is, instead, a long argument—one more appropriate to late Saturday night bull sessions in the dorm than to a movie—that we don’t go to heaven or hell when we die: We go to our own subconscious.

On the whole, most of us would probably rather be in Philadelphia. (R)