Friday, April 12, 2013

Netflix Roulette: Firestarter Rekindled

Anyone who goes in for genre films has to have a streak of masochism. Genre movies are so rarely good that if you can't take the punishment, you won't survive long enough to find that perfect rose at the top of the mountain of dung. Most genre films lack the ambition to be good even when they have the talent for it. They don't push the envelope because challenging the audience will reduce the box office in the short run even if it creates long term hits or cult items. Audiences don't like to be challenged. I understand that. I do. Sometimes genre films are comfort food, something to put on the TV while you unwind after work, to be consumed when your brain needs to rest.

I've been avoiding very challenging films for the last couple of weeks. For various reasons, my attention span and my general headspace haven't been up to the task. True, there are legitimately great films that don't require the level of concentration that a film by, say, Hou or Kairostami or Wong Kar Wai require, but I just haven't been in the mood. Instead, I've been using media as a kind of Hagen Das for the brain. When I haven't been watching old favorites, I've been watching movies that don't require much in the way of deep analysis and that certainly don't plumb the deeper recesses of my emotions. Most such movies are crap. That's fine. I can own that.

Spinning the roulette wheel has never been kind to me, but it usually offers me up unchallenging movies that I can approach at a cruising altitude of consciousness. One doesn't need to watch very much of this week's offering, Firestarter Rekindled (2002, directed by Robert Iscove), to realize that it is damaged goods. It takes even less time to identify where it goes wrong. The main problem? It has too little story for its running time. That it's nearly three hours long is a foolish gamble even considering that this was conceived as a cable miniseries-slash-series pilot.

More than a decade has passed since the events of Firestarter, in which ten year old Charlie McGee, the pyrokinetic offspring of parents who met at a troubling drug research experiment, torched the facilities of The Shop, a shady government agency in charge of the fringes of scientific weapon's development. Charlie is thought by most to have died in the fire, a fiction that she is more than happy to embrace. She's living under an assumed name and conducting graduate research at the very college where her parents' fatal experiment was conducted. She's plumbing the depths of Lot 6. Enter insurance investigator Vincent Sforza, tasked with finding the survivors of the Lot 6 experiments in order to disburse a class action settlement check. Charlie is on his list, and his superiors are very insistent that he find her, even if she is dead. The class action settlement is a sham, of course, and the real backer of Sforza's assignment is The Shop, now headed by John Rainbird, the monstrous agent who coaxed Charlie's powers into the open all those years ago. Rainbird is obsessed with Charlie, but he has other irons in the fire. He's handling a group of precocious psychic children whom he plans to use as a covert weapon. To this end, he masterminds a bank heist where the kids can showcase their talents. Meanwhile, Sforza finds Charlie, and discovers the real motives behind his assignment. He vows to help Charlie as she moves to thwart Rainbird and his proteges...

I doubt that Firestarter is anyone's favorite Stephen King movie. The original film is notable mainly for Drew Barrymore's performance as Charlie, two years removed from E. T.. One of my objections at the time was the whitewashing of John Rainbird, described in the book as a huge Native American, an "orc of a man," and certainly NOT the character played by George C. Scott in the movie. They didn't change his ethnicity, mind you, they just cast a white actor in the part. In my head, Rainbird would have been played by Will Sampson. But Firestarter was miscast up and down the roster. I doubt the story one finds in the book could have survived the talent involved even if it was one of King's best books, which it isn't. It was directed by Mark Lester, fer Pete's sake, after the producers chased off John friggin Carpenter! Ah, what could have been...

I'm not entirely opposed to a sequel or TV series or whatever Firestarter Rekindled purports to be. I kind of like the idea of catching up with Charlie McGee as an adult. This movie even makes it fun for a short bit. When we first meet the adult Charlie, she's having nightmares that set her bed on fire. She sleeps with a fire extinguisher close at hand. This is clever. A scene a few minutes later finds Charlie picking up a dude in a bar and having (surprisingly chaste) sex with him on the hood of a car. This sets the entire street on fire and boils the asphalt behind her as she flees the scene. These scenes are clever, but they're all too isolated. What it means to live with a wild talent is fertile grounds for moviemaking and there are even hints of it littering this movie, so it's disappointing that this idea is mostly abandoned in the second half of the film. This really shows its pedigree as a two-part miniseries with a dramatic shift in tone and subject matter once it hits the eighty minute mark or so. Once that shift comes, this turns into more of an X-men knock off rather than the psychic thriller that it is at the outset. Given the cheapness of the production it doesn't have the resources to make the shift into superhero-land.

Remember what I said about Rainbird being miscast in the 1984 movie? Well, he's even more miscast in this one. Rainbird is played by Malcolm McDowell: still disfigured, but whiter than white. In this film's defense, they've dropped any mention of the character's ethnicity, but it's still galling. He's been recast in this film as a kind of grotesque dark version of Professor Xavier, which suits the actor, truthfully, even if McDowell isn't invested in the project (and he isn't). Dennis Hopper is in the cast too--cashing a paycheck, I presume--playing a combination Maguffin/exposition sink. Deborah Van Valkenburg shows up, too, and she's okay. It's nice to see that she's still working. The rest of the cast is composed of unfamiliar faces. Charlie is played by Marguerite Moreau, and she's not bad, though she doesn't plumb the depths of what a haunted character Charlie surely must be. That might be the fault of the filmmakers rather than the actress herself, though. They don't really give her a chance to build a character.

Charlie's particular talents make for photogenic special effects, even on the cheap (fire effects are relatively easy even on a budget) and the climactic, um, conflagration is pretty good. When it gets into more particular special effects, its cheapness tends to subvert this, though, and even during its set pieces, Charlie's exercise of her powers falls into the "strike a pose and point" category. Sometimes, she looks like a supermodel, striding out of the flames as part of an elaborate runway show. At some point, the sexualization of her powers becomes ridiculous. The scene at the end, when she kisses Rainbird while burning him alive is downright risible.

What this strikes me as is a distaff version of the 1990s adventure show, The Pretender (which, in turn, owes a lot to King's Firerstarter).  That show was better than Firestarter Rekindled. It had more resources and better actors. This suggests to me that this was not pitched as a continuance of King's ideas at all, but was rather a pitch that recycled familiar television product. TV execs, like audiences, are comforted by the familiar, after all. Low-rent TV is like a ghoul, sometimes. It devours its dead and regurgitates the bones.

1 comment:

Chris Hewson said...

I definitely liked this film a lot more than you did. I did have my own problems with it though, like Dennis Hopper's character. Not only did his power seem ludicrous compared to others that the SHOP project produced, but his reasons for [SPOILERS] out to [SPOILERS] made zero sense.
I'll have my own review of this out sometime soon-Whenever I feel like rewatching a three hour long movie!