Format: DVD from Kankakee Public Library through interlibrary loan on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.
I’ve jumped on this train before and I’m going to keep jumping on it—Stephen King doesn’t always translate to film well. Some of the movies based on his work are tremendous, all-time classics. Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and others certainly lead the pack. But a lot of his work just doesn’t make the transition very well. Maximum Overdrive comes to mind. And then…there’s a big, squishy middle area with films like Firestarter.
I’d seen Firestarter before, although it had been much more than a decade since my last watch. I remembered enough to be able to recall the basic story. I remembered that this is one of the few King stories that features The Shop, a shadowy government agency that deals with the paranormal, mental abilities, and the like. The people at The Shop would love to have gotten their hands on someone like Carrie White, for instance. The Shop is one of those world-building things that really should have been used more in King’s work.
Anyway, Firestarter is the story of Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore), who is a pyrokinetic. If you’re not up on your woo-science terms, this means that Charlie can set things on fire with her mind. Charlie has these abilities thanks to her parents. Andrew (David Keith) and Vicky McGee (Heather Locklear, in her big-screen debut) are the only survivors from a Shop experiment that gave them psychic abilities. We don’t really learn what Vicky can do, but Andy has the ability to force people to do what he wants. This comes at the price of whanging headaches and bloody noses.
Of course, The Shop isn’t going to let them get too far away, so once Charlie is born and starts manifesting her skills, they send in their people to capture her. This results in Vicky’s death and both Andy and Charlie go on the run to stay one step ahead of the government. In their travels, they are helped by an old farmer named Irv (Art Carney) and his wife Norma (Louise Fletcher). But, of course, they are eventually captured by The Shop and Charlie is put to the test. Hilarity and carnage ensue.
One of the more impressive features of Firestarter is the depth of the cast. In addition to those already mentioned, we have the trio of Shop leaders. The Shop is run by Captain Hollister, played by Martin Sheen. The research is led by Dr. Pynchot, played by Moses Gunn, an actor who honestly should have a much deeper fan base. The real win here, though, is Shop assassin and psychic little girl collector John Rainbird played by George C. Scott. While a lot of this movie is dealing with Drew Barrymore still learning the trade, Scott cures a lot of ills in this movie. His John Rainbird is cold, calculating, and purely psychotic, a fascinating creation of cinematic malice.
But, of course, there are some serious issues here. One of the biggest problems is that Firestarter is inconsistent with almost everything in terms of how Charlie’s powers actually work. We get a few moments early on where she does some lighting of fires to give us the fact that she can do it. Once she gets to The Shop, we’re given a few controlled experiments for us to view. In the first one, she lights some wood chips on fire. Then, looking for a way to pull the power back, she tries to move it to a bathtub filled with water. Okay, cool—and it’s a great effect when the water starts boiling. But why does the water light on fire? Why does she ignite cinderblocks later on? And how the hell is she launching fireballs that have apparent mass from her mind? If Charlie can light fires with her brain, I can accept that for the length of the movie. But that she can suddenly literally manifest matter out of nothing with the power of thought? C’mon. This was completely unnecessary and just dumbed down the movie for stupid theatrics.
At best, Firestarter is mid-range Stephen King. George C. Scott is a standout, and Drew Barrymore tries ably. And aside from some fireworks and a lot of exploding, there’s not a great deal else here.
Why to watch Firestarter: Wow, what a cast!
Why not to watch: Inconsistencies drag it down.