REVIEW: Firestarter [1984]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 114 minutes
    Release Date: May 11th, 1984 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Mark L. Lester
    Writer(s): Stanley Mann / Stephen King (novel)

You don’t need your gun.

I haven’t read Stephen King‘s Firestarter, but I must believe it has more going for it than Mark L. Lester‘s adaptation. Why make it into a film at all if not? If I were to guess, the problem occurred when the producers hired Stanley Mann to create a new script that leaned more closely to the novel after Christine director John Carpenter had already commissioned two before exiting the project. There’s a difference between making a film version of a book and filming the book—something too many people in Hollywood can’t seem to understand (see the bland attempts at bringing Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon to life for further evidence). The page and the screen are vastly different mediums with vastly different needs. One explains, the other shows.

Lester’s film never finds secure enough footing to do the latter. The moment you enter this story believing its main draw is things burning in flames, you’ve already lost. Some of that stems from a screenplay that refuses to dig deeper and some of it from the technological limitations holding the power of such explosions back. Without computer effects, the filmmakers must worry about the logistics of the heat and fire. That means shooting things from a distance to minimize injuries and, by extension, remove suspense. When the entire climax demands destruction, you must provide something to invest in because static shots of things exploding in a controlled manner isn’t interesting. The pyrotechnics hold intrigue because they’re linked to emotion. Sever that connection and you’re left with nothing.

The potential exists, though. We’re dealing with a father (David Keith‘s Andy McGee) and daughter (Drew Barrymore‘s Charlie) on the run from a secret government agency known as The Shop due to them possessing psychic abilities after a college experiment. Andy and Vicky (Heather Locklear) agreed to let Dr. Wanless (Freddie Jones) inject them with an unknown substance during a double-blind study that promised them cash in return. They were gifted with the power of telepathy (both to read minds and push their will onto people and machines); the others in the study died. Years pass, a child is born, and the consequences worsen upon discovering Charlie has inherited that gift with the addition of pyrokinesis. They just want to find normalcy. The government seeks to weaponize them.

It’s the usual narrative trajectory from there, assisted by flashbacks that supply exposition without lulling us to sleep. Vicky is killed and Andy takes Charlie on the road. Their close calls with capture are lackluster visually, but we at least get a sense of urgency en route to Irv (Art Carney) and Norma Manders’ (Louise Fletcher) home. This is where Firestarter shines because it’s a place that allows humanity to enter the equation. We’ve spent twenty or so minutes watching two people get hunted like animals and now we finally meet strangers willing to treat them with empathy even if they don’t believe the story they’re being told. So, when Charlie inevitably proves it by killing Shop agents who arrive at the door, we completely understand their awe.

But it’s all a means to an end. King and company need this show of force to get Shop leaders Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen) and John Rainbird (George C. Scott in brownface as a Cherokee assassin) to take the threat seriously. Only then can they devise a plan to institutionalize Andy and Charlie without more harm to their ranks. Unfortunately, imprisoning them also grinds any momentum that had built to a halt. Now it’s about experiments and subterfuge. Rainbird seeks to endear himself to Charlie and gain control. Andy seeks to dupe Hollister in allowing him the rest necessary to gather his strength. We know their way out is through fire and thus wait with the hope of finding more. Sadly, fire is all we get.

Lester and Mann lead us forward with superficial precision, introducing details that captivate (Rainbird’s belief that he might be able to take Charlie’s power with him to the afterlife is the most potent) without any engagement as more than color. The good will earned by Andy and Charlie at the Manders’ house all but evaporates as the plot turns to the generic machinations of exploitation under the guise of science. We can’t invest in Rainbird’s relationship with Charlie knowing he doesn’t care about her (although the film wants us to believe he does—something I assume is better fleshed out in the novel) and we grow bored of the repetition surrounding Andy’s fight for freedom since it’s so far removed from his daughter’s plight. We’re watching paint dry.

Maybe it’s a result of rewatching almost forty years after its release, but the whole seems quaint in a way that counteracts any bite it might have possessed back then. Barrymore is pretty effective as the lead despite her age and Scott does his best to feign compassion despite our already being shown he possesses none. I wonder if there’s a way to make this film without tipping their hand to his villainy so profusely. Make us think there’s a chance that he might decide to help her instead. Only then could I legitimately be surprised by what happens because, as it is now, everything is obvious to the point of ambivalence. We know Andy will push Hollister and we know Rainbird will trigger Charlie’s wrath via betrayal.

It ultimately comes down to whether you mind waiting for those inevitabilities to happen and whether you believe their execution is worth that wait. I was fine wading through the noise because I wanted to see just how crazy the climax got. What I received may not have lived up to expectations, but it did at least occur. Watching miniatures explode while dummies fly around may not get the blood pumping, but it’s something. Right? Is it enough to satisfy? No. I don’t see myself ever feeling a desire to watch again. The only reason I did now was preparation for the remake—one I hope learns from its predecessor’s mistakes. I would read the book, though. Because despite the adaptation’s failings, the material’s untapped potential is unmistakable.

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