How anybody can adapt a noted novel by Stephen King, people it with respected actors like George C. Scott, Louise Fletcher, and Martin Sheen, and then churn out a movie so uneventful, so inconsequential as 1984’s Firestarter is a bigger mystery than anything that occurs in the film itself. But, of course, the moment we see the name Dino De Laurentiis pop up in the opening credits, we really shouldn’t be so surprised by the mediocre schlock that follows. A producer with an obvious love for dumb spectacle, De Laurentiis’ involvement with Firestarter pretty much guaranteed that whatever deep material might have been found in King’s original novel would be cast aside in favor of a bunch of stuff bursting into flame, again and again.
And again and again.
Boiled down, the story of this film is about a young father (David Keith) and his little daughter (Drew Barrymore) on the run from a shady government agency. The father and his now-deceased wife were experimented on by this agency and developed incredible mental powers, which they’ve passed along to their daughter, who is able to start fires with her mind. The government sees potential in the daughter as a possible weapon, so they apprehend the father and daughter and subject them to intensive testing. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the extent of the little girl’s power is unleashed on the government agents, leading to that seemingly-endless series of explosions that I mentioned.
A key relationship in the film is between Barrymore and George C. Scott, who plays a Native American(!) government agent who poses as an orderly to befriend the young girl and convince her to do what she’s told. These scenes are among the most interesting in the film, largely due to Scott’s total commitment to his increasingly-wacky character, but they are undercut by our knowledge of Scott’s true motivations. Were the character first introduced as a kindly orderly, then later revealed to be treacherous, the weight of this betrayal would be felt by both the little girl and the audience itself.
Instead, we know everything that is going on all the time. There are no surprises, no revelations, no twists. In fact, there really aren’t even any character arcs. The heroes don’t change and the villains die. Firestarter does nothing to draw in its audience, nor to create empathy for its characters. The young Drew Barrymore is adorable enough, but the character is ultimately vacant. A kid being cute isn’t a substitute for genuine character development, and when we compare Barrymore’s character in this film to her role in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., we see that a young child can still convey depth and emotion and that a director doesn’t have to fall back on their being a lovable moppet in order to gain the audience’s sympathy.
George C. Scott’s character is an odd cobbling-together of different menacing traits. His being a Native American is played for maximum mysticism, complete with his belief that by killing people he is able to somehow absorb their essence and become more powerful. He seems somehow elevated above the other villains, able to accomplish what they are not, and ready for every contingency. Scott does what he can to bring these traits together to form a cohesive character, but there simply isn’t enough there to hold on to, and the character ultimately slips through his fingers.
One of the only effective – and even a bit disturbing – scenes of the film involves David Keith and Martin Sheen. Sheen, who plays the arrogant and charismatic head of the government agency, has previously been openly hostile towards Keith, and indifferent to the suffering of the little girl. However, later in the film, Keith uses his power to manipulate Sheen’s mind, turning him into a sympathetic puppet, accommodating Keith at every turn. This total shift in Sheen’s performance works wonders in showing just how effective Keith’s telepathy can be, and, despite being about a villain getting his just desserts, the scene is deeply unnerving and hints at what this film could have been if approached in a different way.
Unfortunately, spectacle wins the day and the film ends with the little girl flanked by government agents, each of whom eventually runs away screaming, engulfed in flame. Cars speed towards the girl and she blows them up. A helicopter descends from the sky, its massive weapons aimed at the little girl. What do you think happens next? If you guessed that the girl lights the helicopter on fire and it explodes in mid-air, congratulations, you’re correct.
This sequence goes on and on, eventually feeling more like some kind of stunt and pyrotechnics demonstration than the climax of a feature film. But, again, we shouldn’t be surprised. Dino De Laurentiis – with assistance from director Mark Lester, whose most notable film is the Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando – strips away whatever subtlety or psychology found in the source material and boils the film down to what De Laurentiis – who at one time produced Fellini’s La Strada – became known for: mindless action and schlock sensibilities. Perhaps it was inevitable that De Laurentiis would be drawn to a property called “Firestarter”. Hell, it could have been the name of his autobiography.