Believe it or not, there was another movie that opened this weekend. If you follow the buzz (whatever that means), or look at theater listings, you could almost fool yourself into thinking that Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness started last Friday, not the remake of one of the string of Stephen King adaptations to haunt television stations and theaters in the late 1970s and 1980s. I am referring to Firestarter, which I believe is the first movie I have ever seen with Zac Efron, or at least the only one about which I cared. The original, being released in 1984, had a young Drew Barrymore in it, and that is about all I know about it. I am aware of the reputation for the poor quality of Stephen King stories, no matter the format. The Shining (1980) might be the best, although even the Stanley Kubrick classic has its problems. And welcome to blend of randoms thoughts tossing about in my brain as I enter a film like Firestarter.
You have to give Firestarter credit for one thing: you know your baby might have special gifts when things around her start catching fire. Then again, this is something that dad, Andrew “Andy” McGee (Zac Efron), and mom, Victoria “Vicky” Tomlinson-McGee (Sydney Lemmon), are prepared for when it happens. The reason we know this is because during the opening credits, we see them as young people being selected to take part in a study with the hitting-it-on-the-nose government research think tank called the Department of Scientific Intelligence (DSI). The result of the chemical experiments to which they are subjected is that they develop psychic gifts. Andy can manipulate other people’s minds, which he calls “the push,” and Vicky can literally push things around with a thought. That baby, by the way, is Charlene (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who they affectionately call Charlie. Mom and dad’s abilities are cheap parlor tricks compared to Charlie’s supposedly limitless potential. They are also aware of this, and they have no desire to give their child over to DSI, staying on the run and off the grid as a result. Andy bills himself as a life coach, using the push to get people to stop smoking, for example, on a cash-only basis. They try to give Charlie as normal a life as possible, but it is evident to her classmates that the McGees are not like the rest. As a result, she undergoes a great deal of bullying at school, which tends to make her predisposition towards starting blazes to come out at inopportune times. This happens one day during gym class after her main nemesis pegs her in the back of the head during dodgeball, causing her to run off to the bathroom. There, her teacher, Ms. Gardner (Tina Jung), witnesses her produce a fireball, which she interprets as a bomb. The incident attracts the attention of the new head of DSI, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), who wants to “reacquire” Charlie for her “protection.” Hopefully, you can read the ulterior motives behind the quotation marks. To do so, she reactivates one of their former agents, another product of their experiments, John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes). He gets to the McGee residence as Andy and Charlie are out getting ice cream, and kills Vicky before they return. Before she dies, she warns John that he is not prepared for Charlie’s powers. This is demonstrated to him as Charlie throws him off her in a fiery explosion that knocks him back and allows her and Andy to escape. Now on the run once more, Andy convinces a man named Irv Manders (John Beasley) passing down the lonely backroad along which they travel to take them to Boston. On the way, he offers to give them dinner, which they reluctantly accept. Unfortunately, he also watches the news, and recognizes Andy from the description given in the report. Before Andy can stop him, Irv calls the police. This also happens to be the moment that John catches up with them, and he kills all the police officers before they can get to the McGees. DSI is not long behind them, but Charlie gets away on foot while Andy distracts John. In response, the DSI agents take Andy and John into custody. When Captain Hollister confronts John about not completing the assigned task, he points out that the psychic connection between Andy and Charlie will eventually draw the child to their facility. His assumption turns out to be correct, though nobody there can stop her from reaching her father. However, Andy tells her that there is no escaping this situation, and uses his last push to get her to burn the entire building to the ground. She also receives some help in her efforts from John. In the aftermath, they come face-to-face, and Charlie has the opportunity to avenge the death of her mother. Instead, she walks away, and ends up being carried into the night in John’s arms.
Like many films, I probably dislike Firestarter for different reasons than your average, non-Catholic film goer or reviewer. To most anybody else seeing this film, you might wonder who it is that gives Charlie the location of the DSI headquarters when it turns out not to be Andy. Another unanswered question is why is Andy not more upset about Vicky? There are a whole host of other aspects of the film, not to mention its predictability (even when I had not seen the previous version, or read the book), that make it kind of dumb. Please note the modifier. While watching it, there were parts that this Catholic reviewer appreciated. The most obvious one is when Andy and Charlie take the time to pray for the stray cat she accidentally incinerates after it scratches her. It includes asking for a blessing for Vicky, and it is a heartwarming moment, no pun intended. The best part, though, is when Andy makes Charlie promise not to hurt anyone. It is great lesson in why we should not seek vengeance, and it jives well with Catholic teaching on the matter. As a new father, DSI agents attempted take the infant Charlie. When he finds them, he pushes the one to shoot his partner, and then makes the first forget how to breathe. In relating this story to Charlie, he talks about how in killing these two men, he had forgotten in his desire to lash out that these people had families of their own. The point is made all the more poignant with the death of Vicky still fresh, even if it does not seem to be dealt with emotionally speaking. In turn, Andy makes Charlie promise that she will never use her powers to hurt anyone. This, I liked. Where the movie turns sour is in the ending. Charlie breaks her promise on the way into the DSI compund when she obtains a security card from a DSI agent, burning him alive when he pulls a gun on her. That is somewhat understandable because it seems to be a matter of life or death. Yet, it is ruined completely when Charlie gets to Andy, but inexplicably cannot use her abilities to free him. In response, Andy uses his last push to tell his daughter to break her promise. So much for the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek, even if she does not murder John on sight. I would like to have seen her find some other way of dealing with the situation, particularly since her powers seem to work in a number of ways . . . except when plot convenience makes them suddenly stop. Anyway, kudos to dad for sacrificing himself for his daughter, and there is a special place for people like that in Heaven. Still, it makes for an unsatisfying movie.
Actually, I was somewhat surprised to see Firestarter open this weekend. I am merely marking time until Downton Abbey: A New Era comes out next weekend. In the meantime, if you want to see a movie that is a disguised metaphor for puberty, even if they explicitly say that it is not, then I guess watch it? I guess? Or you could just see Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness again.