Thursday, July 7, 2016



It turns out it's not actually as easy to make an awesome movie about psychic powers as BDP and Cronenberg made it look.

Directed by Mark Lester
Written by Stanley Mann (based on the novel by Stephen King)
With Drew Barrymore (Charlie McGee), David Keith (Andy McGee), Heather Locklear (Vicky McGee, nee Tomlinson), Martin Sheen (Capt. Hollister), and George C. Scott (John Rainbird)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I imagine there are worse retreads of Brian De Palma's Carrie out therehell, one need look no further than the awful, pointless remake of Carrie they released in 2013but Firestarter has got to be pretty far down the master list of all the movies about young women with psychic powers who are abused and threatened until, at long last, they unleash their secret might in a conflagration of awesome super-murder.

Oh, yes: I know that I said the spoilers were "moderate" up top; but how else could any "Carrie retread" possibly end?  And just how happy would you beChrist, how happy do you think I'd beif that is not how Firestarter ends?  To answer my rhetorical question: even less happy than I already am with Firestarter as it stands, which isn't very happy at all.  And the thing that makes me the least happy about it, of all its various problems, is how it spends a solid hour circling the most tediously boring Evil Government subplot possible, until at last the film's director, Mark Lesterknown for a handful of movies all made within a couple of years of each other (namely Commando, The Class of 1984, this, and nothing else)decides that it's finally time to burn through the rest of his budget, and instructs little Charlie McGee, pyrokinetic, to set a whole bunch of dudes and buildings on fucking fire.

Still, if the truth be told, Firestartera Carrie retread from the mind of the author who invented Carrie (this being Stephen King)tracks with the plot of Carrie in very few ways at all.  But those in the know will recall that it was BDP himself who actually got the ball rolling on all those innumerable Carrie riffs; his very next motion picture was itself one of the first follow-ups to his own classic menstruation fable.  This, of course, was The Furya film that could plausibly take place in the same universe, and deals (if to significantly lesser effect) with some markedly similar themes.  Meanwhile, Firestarter was penned by King two years after The Fury; and, if Lester's film is at all faithful to its source, then what we have is a weird circle of the adaptee adapting his own adapterthough, if I'm disinclined to be charitable, what we really have have is a terrifyingly direct rip-off, to the extent that even a whole host of production design decisions appear to have been made in reference to the De Palma film, which (curiously enough) wasn't even that financially successful.  And yet it's the surfaces alone that get replicated: none of the heartand absolutely none of the soulremain to be found.  And certainly nothing comes along to replace them.  Instead, given a script about a pre-pubescent psychokinetic wunderkind, Lester simply removes the horror and bravura filmmaking and (most of) the weird skeeviness that gave Carrie and Fury their strange powerand, somehow, still manages to add runtime in the process.  (Truly, it's a Goddamned paradox.)

So, how about that plot, then?  Well, as we'll learn through a whole lot of decently-staged but momentum-interrupting flashbacks, Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson have been the recipients of an experimental hallucinogen, described as Lot 6 (or, alternatively, "LOT-6," if the Wikipedia is correct); this has altered their genome, and afforded them fabulous psychic powers.  Vicky has the ability to read minds.  Andy has the ability to control them (which he does with some serious effort and a whole heap of unpleasant overacting on the part of David Keith).  Anyway, by the time we actually catch up with Andy, Vicky's been dead for ages, but not without leaving behind a legacy in the form of their child, Charlie, and Charlie has inherited her parents' mutated DNA.  As the title suggests, her powers revolve principally around setting things (and people) on fire.

This has made them the targets of a secret government organization, which does indeed have a real and marginally less stupid name, but is referred to primarily as "the Shop."  The Shop's evil commandant, Captain Hollister, wants Andy, and especially Charlie, so he can weaponize them.  But when groups of featured extras do not suffice, he dispatches his most evil lieutenant, John Rainbird, to recover them.  (Christ, I just realized that he's supposed to be Native American, which I assume is meant to explain the ponytail.)  And recover them he does, signifying the end of Firestarter as an interesting movie, for at around the hour markwhen a movie like this really ought to be barrelling into its apocalyptic conclusionthe screenplay by Stanley Mann, apparently with Lester's full blessing, decides to chill out for a while.  And so we sit patiently in the Shop's mansion headquarters (cf. The Fury), which is clearly just somebody's house, while Charlie and Rainbird cool their heels for what feels like forever, and the latter attempts to seduce the former into performing the dull tests that Hollister has demanded, even though Rainbird has made it relatively clear that he intends to murder the child due to the existential threat to humanity which her burgeoning powers represent.

And it just goes on—while Andy, who might as well be our actual protagonist, well, he hangs around too, scheming and scheming in his quarters, even though it's not remotely clear why Hollister hasn't killed him yet, since he's not actually using him to leverage Charlie's cooperation.  That's Firestarter's biggest problem: even on the level of a purely mechanical superhero tale, which is frankly the only level upon which it intends to function (it's not a fable or an allegory or a coming of age tale, and is only technically a thriller), it's just so fucking dull, never coming close to earning its claim to nearly two hours of your life.

This is not the film's sole problem, of course.  I've already mentioned that David's full-tilt rendition of Andy's Kilgrave powers grows rapidly annoying, especially the way that Lester keeps zooming in on his damned face like there's any interest left to mine out of a generic psychic nosebleed the fiftieth time you've seen it; what I haven't mentioned, though, is that the perfrormer is at best only functional in every other scene, too.  George C. Scott plays Rainbird, and it's a transparently sleazy attempt at trying to buy the gravitas of a great actorbut at least Scott is almost good, bringing a weird pedophilic energy to the part that's at least darkly interesting, even if it comes completely out of nowhere and goes right back into nowhere in the end.  No, unfortunately, you can really only take a nearly-dead old man with a ponytail so seriously as your chief villain.  Worse yet, you get the impression that the costume department, led by Jennifer Butler, must have had some kind of honest-to-God grudge against the poor bastardgiven that the only justification for pouring the portly geriatric into a leather trenchcoat that barely fits him (and then giving him an eyepatch, which he sometimes wears over his character's bad eye, and sometimes does not) is that Scott must have killed one of their fucking pets.  Well, for what it's worth, Martin Sheen is stuck in full Martin Sheen smarm autopilot as Hollister; and I probably have to admit that this represents the best performance in the filmas low a bar as that is.

And that leaves us with Drew Barrymore in the "lead," though Firestarter does not routinely bother foregrounding either Charlie McGee or her childlike perspective; mainly, Lester throws in a smattering of low-angle shots, and calls it a day.  (Meanwhile, the one potentially great narrative hook Firestarter could have had, it throws away without ever realizing its follythe film implies, early on, that it was Charlie herself who killed her mother, and in a fit of anger, no less.  It's tantalizing, isn't it?  This movie might have actually been about something.  Of course, it's revealed soon enough that the true culprits were just some shadowy government agents, doing exactly what you expect shadowy government agents to do.)

Anyway: baby Barrymore had already proven herself a very effective child actor three years earlier, in E.T.but, then, that was in a supporting role, and it was also under the tutelage of Steven Spielberg, one of the best directors of child performances there ever was. Lester is no Spielberg, to put it mildly.  So, Barrymore, despite her nominal protagonist being badly shortchanged, has a lot more to do in Firestarter, and yet is apparently acting all on her lonesome here, with no obvious direction to her performance at all: above all, she's just horribly inconsistent, capable of achieving only one single goal in any given scene (look sad, look angry, look happy, talk with a cute lisp, etc.).  It is not, of course, her fault; it's the director's job to give any actor, but especially a juvenile one, the proper coaching.  But blame is immaterial, and it certainly doesn't change the results: she's frankly terrible.  And so, with Barrymore never finding the slightest emotional throughline for Charlie in the spaces in between the scenesand sometimes even in the spaces in between shotsCharlie never remotely comes together as a character, as opposed to a three foot-tall blonde-haired prop that can glower at things while Lester hits her in the face with a wind machine.

And that's the thing that Firestarter maybe does least well of all: a man can easily forgive bad acting in a chintzy horror movie; he can even forgive some deep narrative doldrums and a constitutionally-fucked sense of pacing; and, hell, he can go so far as to forgive a whole lot of boring filmmaking, too, even if a movie that rips off The Fury so thoroughly has no right to be half this sedate.  What's much harder to forgiveimpossible, in factis a failure to live up to the one real promise the film makes, with its R rating and with its title and with its presumptively radical Tangerine Dream score: namely, the sight of people in various stages of getting burned to death whilst bitchin' rock-electronica wails on the audio track.  First, check your expectations vis-a-vis Tangerine Dream: of the several Dream film scores I've heard, this has got to be the laziestnever exactly bad, but by God, is it underwhelming, just kind of laying there, flaccid, atop the film.

Meanwhile, Firestarter does occasionally try to earn its title; certainly, there are a lot of folks who get set on fire or blown up.  (The body count exceeds 20, and might hit 30.)  But for all the mileage it gets from trick ignitions on camera, on exploding cars (and dummies standing next to exploding cars), and on stuntmen in flamesuits, there's an effortfulness to the mayhem that keeps you at a distance from it, with editing that incompletely glues all the shots of carnage together, and an increasingly repetitive structure to them, too.  (Barrymore stares at camera; man has caught on fire off-camera; cut away, usually back to Barrymore; fire has consumed a dummy.)  I realized, by the end, that the only reason this movie couldn't get away with a PG was probably just the Stephen King brand name: outside of one grody insert shot during a flashback, of a fellow experimental subject having clawed out his own eyes, there is barely anything to Firestarter that could possibly justify the R it actually got.  And I'll remind you: this is a movie about a girl who immolates human beings!

You wonder if Lester had ever even seen Scanners, or if he walked out before he got to the marvelous boiling of flesh and blood that constitutes that remarkable motion picture's ball-curdling climax.  You wonder, too, why anyone who has seen Scannersor Carrie, or The Furywould ever need to bother with something as lousy as Firestarter, let alone for the full 110 minutes it takes to get to what could only seem like "the good part" if you're not directly comparing it to its far, far better-mounted predecessors.

Score:  4/10

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