Nelson Wright, a medical student, looks toward the city skyline and says to himself "Today is a good day to die". Nelson convinces four of his medical school classmates—Joe Hurley, David Labraccio, Randall Steckle, and Rachel Manus—to help him discover what lies beyond death. 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 cannot describe what he saw, but something is there. The others 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. David is third to flatline, and he sees a vision of a black girl, Winnie Hicks, that he bullied in grade school. The three men start to experience hallucinations related to their afterlife visions. Nelson gets physically beat up by Billy Mahoney twice. Joe, engaged to be married, is haunted by his home videos of his sexual dalliances with other women. David finds Winnie Hicks on a train, and she verbally taunts him like he did to her.
Rachel decides to flatline next. David tries to stop the others from giving Rachel their same fate, but she is already "dead" when he arrives. Rachel nearly dies after the power goes out, and the men are unable to shock her with the defibrillator paddles. Luckily, she survives, but she, too, is haunted by the memory of her father committing suicide when she was young. The three men finally reveal their harrowing experiences to one another, and David decides to put his visions to a stop. He goes to visit Winnie Hicks, now grown up, and he apologizes to her. Winnie thanks him, and she accepts his apology. David immediately feels a weight lifted off his shoulders. Then, David finds Nelson, who accompanied David to visit Winnie, beating himself with a climbing axe. For Nelson, Billy Mahoney is attempting to beat him to death for a third time. David stops him in time, and they return to town. Meanwhile, Joe's fiancée, Anne, comes to his apartment, and she breaks up with him after she discovers his videos. Joe's visions cease after Anne leaves him. Rachel seeks comfort in the arms of David, and the two make love. While Rachel and David are together, Nelson takes Steckle and Joe to the graveyard. He reveals that he killed Billy Mahoney as a kid when he hit him with a rock, and he fell out of a tree. Nelson storms off, leaving Joe and Steckle stranded.
David leaves Rachel alone in order to rescue Joe and Steckle at the cemetery. While alone, Rachel goes to the bathroom, and she finds her father. He apologizes to his daughter, and her guilt over his death is lifted when she discovers that he was addicted to heroin. Then, Nelson calls Rachel, and he tells her that he needs to flatline again in order to make amends. He apologizes for involving her and their friends in his stupid plan. The three men race to Nelson, who has been dead for nine minutes. Rachel soon finds them, and the four friends work feverishly to save Nelson. Meanwhile, a young Nelson is being stoned by Billy Mahoney from the tree. Nelson dies in the afterlife from the fall, and his friends cannot revive him. When they are about to give up, David gives Nelson one last shock. They bring him back, and Nelson tells them, "Today wasn't a good day to die."Kiefer Sutherland as Nelson Wright
Julia Roberts as Rachel Manus
Kevin Bacon as Dave Labraccio
William Baldwin as Joe Hurley
Oliver Platt as Randy Steckle
Kimberly Scott as Winnie Hicks
Joshua Rudoy as Billy Mahoney
Benjamin Mouton as Mr. Manus
Hope Davis as Anne Coldren
Patricia Belcher as Edna
Beth Grant as Housewife
Columbia Pictures released Flatliners theatrically on August 10, 1990. The film debuted at No.1 and took in $10 million on its opening weekend. It grossed $61.5 million total in the United States.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 49% of critics give the film a positive review based on 43 reviews. 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." 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." 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."
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." In contrast, The Washington Post's Rita Kempley loved the film, calling it: "a heart-stopping, breathtakingly sumptuous haunted house of a movie". Over time, the film has become a cult film for fans of abstract and thought provoking films."Party Town" – Written and performed by Dave Stewart and the Spiritual Cowboys
"The Clapping Song" – Written by Lincoln Chase
On October 5, 2015, a remake starring Ellen Page and Diego Luna was announced, following the casting of Nina Dobrev, James Norton and Kiersey Clemons. Kiefer Sutherland will return for the remake. Sutherland later disclosed that he was reprising his role from the original film, revealing that the new film would actually be a sequel rather than a remake. Directed by Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, it is scheduled to be released on September 29, 2017.