Flashback is such an underrated film. When I saw that it had a 55% score on Rotten Tomatoes, I had to write about. Also known as The Education Of Fredrick Fitzell, this movie seems to be the Marmite of contemporary cinema; you’ll either love it or hate it. In my opinion, it’s destined to be a cult classic, which is what happens to misunderstood or grossly undervalued flicks. This situation is all the more irritating because as I was watching Flashback I was utterly compelled, and I was ready to call this a “classic”… but then the ending happened (more on that later).
Flashback tells the story of Fred, a man who lives a vanilla life with all the trappings of work, family, and ageing. When someone realises they took the wrong path in life and are stuck in a dull existence, they begin reminiscing about the better part of their life, and in Fred’s case, that was his school days; he had a talent for drawing, he had a couple of friends, and he had a girlfriend. Somewhere along the way, he lost contact with everybody he once knew and felt close to. Fred recalls that Cindy, his friend-slash-girlfriend went missing during their final year at high school, the same year that a fictitious drug called “Mercury” was doing the rounds. Did this drug have something to do with Cindy’s disappearance and Fred’s newfound obsession with her?
Anyone expecting Limitless or Lucy or the Evil Dead remake or some other overrated yet hollow tale about drugs, look away. This has more to do with choice and consequence. To me, Flashback feels like it was written when writer-director Christopher MacBride was told at a certain point in his life – possibly during revising for his exams – that the outcome would affect his entire life. The importance of graduating high-school or college and passing with high grades (and all the stresses that brings) may lead to a high-paid and “secure” job but who wants to sleepwalk through a shite life just so you can drive to a detached home in a luxury sedan and stare at a meaningless certificate? What if during the most stressful part of your life you said “fuck it” and walked away, and did what you truly wanted? Where would you end up? This concept is explored marvelously here with every option covered.
Given the plot about a hallucinogenic drug, the direction and cinematography perfectly puts across the dark yet ever-so trippy feeling of being under the influence; the paranoia of magic mushrooms, the waking nightmares of long-term Morphine use, even the disconnect of Ketamine, and of course, the feeling of living multiple versions of your life stemming from various choices you could (or should) have made.
There have of course been a fair few non-linear movies over the years, with Christopher Nolan’s Memento being a prime example of how to do this kind of thing creatively. That being said, if ol’ Chris sat down and watched this film, he’d cum into his own palm and slap himself. Flashback is like a masterclass of non-linear storytelling and a showcase of how to edit, especially the chopped message from the “scarred man”…
“The system you are using to interpret reality is not one of your choosing. Numbers, language, colour, shape; all a misinterpretation of the information around you. A misinterpretation imposed on you by an invasive life form which is trying to control your consciousness. The substance you ingested temporarily counteracts the influence of the invasive life form that is trying to force you to perceive information in the same manner as itself; in a linear fashion, to perceive choices as having inescapable outcomes, outcomes dictated to you thereby controlling all of your choices, in effect, eliminating them. It achieves this [all] by influencing you to perceive the most elaborate of all misinterpretations; time.”
Told out of order, Flashback has such a poetic narrative and it’s filled with poignancy, heart, and soul. Fred’s drawings for instance, are either painted onto a canvas in a home studio or scrawled onto the walls of a derelict building. An artist has to get what’s in his or her mind out no matter what, whether they’re doodling in a dead-end job, graffiti-ng an underpass, or lucky enough to work and earn money as an actual artist, someone’s inner-being or artistic-ness never leaves them (which is a great message). The repeated “now” scene where Fred walks out of his school exam and out of his work presentation is truly awe-inspiring, and “I’ve looked into the eyes of a hundred grand-kids. The ones that I love the most, they look like you” is one of the best science-fiction-cum-romance lines ever written.
One of the other reasons why I rate this movie is because our two main stars are so likeable. Dylan O’Brien has come a long way since The Maze Runner (and he seems to have a thing for the “Infinite” 😉) and Maika Monroe is always cool and beautiful. The pair have chemistry (unlike Fred and his wife) so as an audience member you’re with them all the way. That is, until the aforementioned finale.
I’m a romantic at heart, so in my opinion, if you’re lucky enough to find your soul-mate or someone you truly love, you should follow them (and they follow you) for as long as you’re allowed to; from the lows of a decrepit crack-den to the highs of a luxury sea-side villa. For Fred to ultimately stop being a rebel, and more importantly, stop following Cindy, it just feels like a let-down given how much her disappearance affected him at the start of the movie. The after-life or pre-life may be infinite but surely every possible iteration of Fred’s physical life should be spent with the one he loves? His mother is a constant, there’s no changing the start of that story (his birth) or the end (his and her death) but to choose the mundane over the meaningful for the mid-portion is just an awful conclusion to what was a potential classic. You could argue that there are infinite realities in a multiverse, and I’d agree, but why should you end-up with a second choice partner and a boring job, sat picking between two identical paint colours in a cookie-cutter apartment? This message of making-do with a “normal” life is in the realms of a Richard Curtis movie. Flashback was supposed to be better than the likes of About Time or Yesterday, it had the tone of something much more subversive but it lets you down like the cool kid at school becoming a suit.
The way I saw it, this could have been a brilliant anti-natalist film too; parents either unwittingly or purposely trap their offspring in the constraints of flesh and time as their parents did to them. This doesn’t necessarily make them malicious, but potentially small-minded, naïve and un-empathetic. It’s a fringe concept, but to trap a free soul or an infinite, multidimensional being inside a flesh-sack on this shitty, spinning sphere (as Cindy says “locked in a prison”) is tantamount to abuse, and getting that message across would have been a first for Hollywood. But then again, since we don’t know for sure (and since we don’t know the meaning of life) how can we be certain that we as infinite beings didn’t ourselves choose to be placed in this specific body and life? If that’s true then both the parent and the child is to blame for existence. The possible realisation of this is accompanied by the line “It’s you!… It’s me!” between Fred and his mother.
Back to the unfollowing of Cindy, parallel universes are by definition infinite so Fred could conceivably choose differently beyond the film’s disappointing finish, but given that a movie is time constrained, surely the audience should be given the best of all possibilities at the end? Maybe end with the best of the multiple options Fred could have had with his true love? The way Flashback finishes, Fred basically sells Cindy out, which is vexing given that I was rooting for them.
Flashback starts off like Stir Of Echoes (a missing girl) veers into The Butterfly Effect (changing one’s past and future) and it has the gloomy, unearthly quality of something like Jacob’s Ladder, but it’s ultimately closer to something like Cloud Atlas as a message about souls, connections, origins, and endings. I purposely didn’t read anything about this film, from it’s plot to its meaning, so what I took from it and felt about it I formed on my own. Half-way through, I thought this was a sci-fi movie about an alien lifeform forcing us to live here, kinda like The Matrix but with the shite ending of World’s End. I suppose audience members going through a film that veers right past drug use and a possibly otherworldly, malevolent force, when faced with a story about love and friendship could be disheartened or even upset.
I’ll acknowledge therefore, that this film isn’t for everyone. The second time I watched it, the person I was with wasn’t at all impressed, in fact they called it “exhausting” which I suppose tallies with the mainstream critics on Rotten Tomatoes and the like. Maybe it’s my personal views, maybe it’s my personal experiences but Flashback is nowhere near an average, throwaway movie, and it’s not “incomprehensible”, “convoluted”, or “complicated” to sit through and watch (as a few reviewers have described it). This is a film that I’m sure could be interpreted in different ways, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Enemy. There might be something in the fact that the drug is called “Mercury” and Fred wears a “Saturn” T-shirt at school but I couldn’t see any other planet references in the sets, props, or costumes. I also recall that in The Devil Rides Out, mercury and salt is used as protection against the devil (is that the “invasive life-form” the scarred man warns us about?). On repeat viewings, you catch subtle lines and glances by characters that mean they’ve lived through that part of the story multiple times (“are you following me again?”).
Like I said in the opening of this review, I was ready to give this a 9 or even a 10 out of 10 but like I also said, that ending is such a disappointment, especially when you consider the distinctive story that leads you to that point. I thought this picture was all about rebellion – anti-mainstream, anti-middle-class, anti-natalist – but in the end we get a disillusioning, unsatisfactory, and “normal” finish. That being said, this movie isn’t without merit and despite being described by critics as derivative or copycatting, Flashback is original; in content, aesthetic, and premise. I just wished MacBride had sat down and thought of a more rewarding finish before filming it. In one of his lives, I’m certain that Christopher has made a perfect version of The Education Of Fredrick Fitzell, but sadly, this isn’t it.
Flash In The Pan?