Friday, October 9, 2015

Review Double Feature: Firestarter (1984) and Firestarter: Rekindled (2002)

You know, I've never seen Firestarter before, or its sequel, and I've got both in a two-disc DVD collection. So to squeeze in sixteen horror movies that I've never seen before this October, another double-feature might be fun, right?

Firestarter (1984)

Rated R

Firestarter enjoys a reputation as one of the better Stephen King adaptations -- not in the same league as Carrie, The Shining, or The Shawshank Redemption, but on the B-list of King films next to Pet Sematary, Christine, and 1408. And after watching it, I am not inclined to complain about that status. It has a lot in common with Carrie on paper, in that both stories are about young girls with psychic powers, but the similarities end there. While Carrie was a full-blown horror story and a parable about teen cruelty gone out of control, Firestarter is a techno-thriller about a father and daughter who are pursued by a government agency that wishes to study their paranormal abilities. It's also a pretty friggin' badass movie, too. It's painfully dated to the early '80s, and some of the effects used to produce little Charlie's fire-breathing powers look hokey today, but it's elevated by a damn good cast playing compelling characters, and even with the cheese that it suffers from now, the action showcases here make up for it with great, eye-catching direction that made for some pulse-pounding moments.

Years ago, a college student named Andy McKee (David Keith) took part in a medical experiment with his girlfriend Victoria (Heather Locklear) involving a serum called Lot 6 that gave the both of them psychic powers. Now, Andy has a daughter named Charlene, or "Charlie" (a young Drew Barrymore), and they've been living on the run for the past year ever since some G-men working for an agency called the Department of Scientific Intelligence, aka The Shop, burst into their home, killed Victoria, and tried to take Charlie away. Charlie, you see, can create bursts of heat with her mind, enough to boil water and start fires, and The Shop wants to study her power and perhaps weaponize it. Despite their best efforts, they eventually find themselves captured at the hands of The Shop's best agent, the Indian assassin John Rainbird (George C. Scott). The Shop attempts to coax Andy and especially Charlie into allowing them to test their powers, while Rainbird has an agenda of his own -- while The Shop's scientists see the two as assets, Rainbird sees them (and Charlie especially) as threats who might destroy the world. Things come to a head when the shady plots of both Rainbird and The Shop clash, causing Charlie to finally snap.

The great thing about this film is that, for its entire runtime, it constantly feels as though it's building to a truly explosive confrontation. Charlie is afraid of her powers, especially after she single-handedly fights off a bunch of agents and inflicts horrible deaths on many of them; her reluctance to use her power out of fear of losing control and killing more people makes her extremely reluctant to cooperate with The Shop. Credit where credit is due: Drew Barrymore is great in this. You don't usually see child actors giving characters this much depth, and while Barrymore proves herself great at playing cute and precocious, she's also good at letting off some real fear and fury. It's no wonder that, even after surviving a Lindsay Lohan-esque downward spiral in her teenage years, Barrymore clawed her way back and remains a star to this day. David Keith is likewise really good as Andy, selling his relationship with his daughter, his urge to protect her, and his desperation to be reunited with her after the two are captured. (They're kept in separate rooms for a reason -- can't let Andy, with his telepathy and suggestion tricks, communicate with Charlie and break out.) As for the villains, Martin Sheen is good enough as Hollister, the slick-yet-sleazy head of The Shop, but he doesn't get enough screen time to leave much of an impression. No, the true standout is George C. Scott as Rainbird. He's clearly evil, but he's not evil because he's some cruel sadist like you'd expect from a master hitman. In fact, he's probably the most moral person in The Shop, even if his moral compass is skewed in a manner that goes against our heroes' quest for freedom. He fears psychics like Andy and Charlie, and thinks that even letting them live so they can be experimented on is putting countless lives in danger. George C. Scott easily measures up to David Keith and Drew Barrymore as someone who only gets more interesting and creepy the more we see and learn about him.

As for the more visceral side that you'd expect from a film about a girl who can blow things up with her mind, weird-looking effects can't diminish the impact of many scenes. It's the simpler stuff that works best, like a wave of fire spreading across an open field or cars getting blown up, and there's a lot of it. This film follows Bay's Law (which I just named for the critically-acclaimed action auteur Michael Bay): anything that can explode will explode, and even stuff that shouldn't explode, like bullets, cinder blocks, and a bathtub full of water, probably will too. It's shamelessly ridiculous, and it's obvious when they try going for more complex effects like fireballs or Charlie stopping bullets with her mind, but I'll be damned if I wasn't having a good time watching little Charlie destroy stuff.

Score: 4 out of 5

It may lack the depth and subversion of King's novel, but it's still a rollicking good time that stands as one of the better adaptations of his work. Easily recommended.


And now, to take a look at the sequel... wait, it was a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries? Joy...

Firestarter: Rekindled (2002)

Rated TV-14

This movie wasn't as bad as I expected given its pedigree and middling IMDb score. No, it's worse. I could compare it to the remake of Carrie that came out that same year, also an overly-bloated TV "miniseries" (American Horror Story laughs at the both of youse), but at least that film had the excuse of trying to adapt the original novel by Stephen King (himself famous for long-winded writing) more faithfully, and had some redeeming value in Angela Bettis' performance as the title character. This one, on the other hand, gives no indication that the filmmakers had even read the book or seen the original film outside of reading the plot description on the DVD case. And that's hardly the worst problem with this film, laden as it is with dull acting, plot holes, stupid characters, flashbacks on top of flashbacks, and most egregiously of all, spectacle that can't even match the original. Shovel this one in the dustbin, because it's nothing but burned-out embers.

The film opens up thirteen years after the events of the original film (retconned to have occurred in 1989), with a now grown-up Charlie McGee (Marguerite Moreau) working at a university library under the name Tommie Andrews, hoping to learn more about her past and find a way to control and suppress her pyrokinetic abilities. Meanwhile, Vincent Sforza (Danny Nucci) is an accountant working for a firm called Systems Technologies, seeking out the people who took part in an experiment run by the company back in the '70s as part of a class-action lawsuit. He soon finds out that there is no lawsuit -- the company is seeking out the participants in order to eliminate them. Vincent susses out Charlie's identity after an attempted one-night stand with "Tommie" sees his apartment badly singed, and together, they work to once again keep Charlie out of the hands of John Rainbird (Malcolm McDowell). The old hunter somehow survived getting torched in the last film, and has continued the Lot 6 program since, raising a new generation of young boys imbued with psychic abilities (he swore off working with girls again after his experience with Charlie) who he and Systems Technologies plan on using as weapons for the military.

It goes without saying that this film makes a complete hash of the original story. To start with, Charlie's parents were originally the last survivors of the Lot 6 experiment, and by the end, Charlie herself was the last fragment remaining of what had happened, yet here, the villains' plan revolves around locating and killing the people who took part in the experiment (with two of them showing up as supporting characters). Likewise, no mention was ever made of The Shop hiring a private contractor to assist them; originally, it was purely a top-secret government experiment along the lines of MKULTRA meets Project Stargate. Worse, however, it butchers the backstories of Charlie and Rainbird just as badly, with new scenes shot serving as flashbacks to the events of the original film. Young Charlie was apparently all too eager to kill the agents hunting them down, and had to be told by her father to stop torturing them, a far cry from the little girl whose entire character arc revolved around her being afraid of losing control and hurting people with her powers. Rainbird, meanwhile, is no longer trying to kill Charlie out of fear that her powers are too dangerous for even The Shop to control; rather, he's taken over and continued the experiment himself. The entire point of both characters has been totally erased. This isn't a sequel so much as it is a soft reboot, changing so much from the original that the only elements it has in common are the title, some characters' names, and the fact that the heroine can set things on fire with her mind. The DVDs (like my own) that call this film Firestarter 2: Rekindled, billing it as a sequel, are disingenuous at best and flat-out lying at worst.

If canon defilement were the only problem that this film had, I might have forgiven it. After all, Evil Dead 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road both played fast and loose with continuity in order to tell their own separate stories, borrowing only those elements from the originals that they wanted to, and both those films are modern classics. The problem here is that, while this film tore down the original, it put up nothing in its place. Character motivations are inconsistent at best, and dumb decisions are commonplace. Charlie, a young woman who can't have sex lest her emotions overwhelm her and cause a firestorm, has sex twice in the first half of the movie -- the second time (with Vincent) barely half an hour after she explains to a prospective lay that she desperately has to leave. Mary, a former test subject who's insanely paranoid about the G-men coming to take her out, thinks nothing of opening her door for a man who claims to have accidentally run over her cat (receiving a predictable fate) -- even though she told off the same man when he came to her door earlier in the film.

As for our protagonists, I don't think I could've been bothered to give a damn about any of them. Vincent is little more than an avatar for the viewer to step into the world, and while Danny Nucci does what little he can with the role, he remains profoundly uninteresting and underwritten throughout; I certainly didn't buy that he was in love with Charlie. Malcolm McDowell and Dennis Hopper are the best actors in this by default, but even they sleepwalk their way through the film as Rainbird, who's reduced to a generic doomsday villain, and Richardson, a former test subject whose powers of precognition only serve to set up an asinine, hackneyed "it was fated to happen!" explanation for the final battle. Rainbird's new test subjects, a group of six adolescent boys, are little more than bratty assholes with shades of obnoxious "radical" attitude who aren't scary, threatening, or interesting in any way. Finally, we come to our heroine, played by one Marguerite Moreau. In terms of talent... well, she's (pardon the pun) hot, looking like a slightly younger version of Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany -- and now I feel ashamed of myself for mentioning a truly talented actress in the same breath as her. At best, Moreau is merely passable, but at worst, she is a black hole of talent. When it comes time for her to unleash her power, the only thing lighting up the show was the special effects, as Moreau, far from being a firestarter, felt like a wet blanket dumped on the proceedings with the empty expression on her face. Nine-year-old Drew Barrymore acts circles around her, and kicks way more ass.

The structure of the film also proves itself very well-conducted to ridiculous padding, bringing it up to 168 boring-ass minutes. I get that this was a miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, but at the very least, if you're gonna make a movie that's nearly three hours long, then for God's sake give us some actual story, characterization, or otherwise interesting content! The worst offender in this regard is the flashbacks, which serve only as a way for this movie to mangle the story of the original out of a belief that nobody watching had seen that film (or read the book). The film's so in love with flashbacks, though, that it can scarcely stop there! No, we get flashbacks inside of flashbacks, flashbacks to events that had happened earlier in this film, flashbacks everywhere. This is what happens when you take "show, don't tell" way too literally without understanding the real meaning of it. You're still not showing; you've just found another, more annoying way to tell.

Last but certainly not least, I come to the single most stunningly bad thing about this movie, and the only one that truly surprised me. The original story was built around the premise of a girl who can light fires with her mind, and while they certainly showed a lot of that in the 1984 adaptation, looking back they were clearly limited in what they could do by the special effects technology of the time. You'd expect a sequel/remake to up the ante, taking advantage of modern CGI technology to have Charlie go on an apocalyptic rampage straight out of... well, a Sci-Fi Channel original movie, given the 2002 TV miniseries budget we're working with here, but one that's still gonna at least throw a lot of cheesy explosions and fireballs our way. Wouldn't you? Well, guess what, sweethearts: this film doesn't even deliver on that! Yeah, a film made in 1984, back when CGI was still a radically new special effects technology that only a few groundbreaking films were daring to experiment with, not only has better effects than a film made eighteen years later, it has more of them! There are only two scenes of Charlie really "going to town" here, one of them has nothing to do with the plot except to get your hopes up in the expectation of more explosive action that never comes, and the other, the climax, lacks any sort of visual punch and substitutes crowds of extras running around screaming for any real thrills. Nothing matches up to Charlie's battle with the agents at the farmhouse in the original, or her final trashing of The Shop's headquarters. The scenes in The Shop's labs, where she's blowing up cinderblocks with her mind and genuinely terrifying the scientists observing her, are tepidly recreated here in flashback form, in what is perhaps the greatest illustration of just how damn lazy this movie was. The makers of this film had one job, and they couldn't even get that right.

Score: 1 out of 5

Well, that was fun. Venting, that is. This "miniseries" was a mockery of the original book and film, made by people who couldn't tell their asses from their elbows. The warning signs were all there, but even I was surprised by the rank incompetence on display here. So yeah, I kinda didn't like it.

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