St Elmo’s Fire, Joel Schumacher’s third film, received fair to middling reviews when it came out in 1985. It even received a Razzie nomination, but then what doesn’t? Push forward 30 years later and it’s fair to say that the only thing holding it together now is a sense of nostalgia for the brat pack and Rob Lowe’s smouldering eyes. Oh, those smouldering eyes.
When looking at films from further than yesterday, there is a temptation to wash your hands of how it looks through modern eyes; whether that be by metaphorically burning it all down or turning the other cheek with a mumbled ‘Life was different back then’. There is also an option to scream wildly that PC culture is ruining everything and why can’t we all just enjoy films for what they are, ya goddamn snowflake! However, that is not an option one should eagerly grab for.
Even if one was to put themselves into an 80s frame of mind – a time that, lest we forget, gave us Soul Man – there’s very little heat in St Elmo’s Fire to warm yourself by. Starring the Brat Pack, the film takes us through the lives of a group of friends, who are just trying to make their way in this crazy, mixed-up world.
There’s Billy (Rob Lowe), the former frat boy stuck in filing marriage. Kirby (Emilio Estevez) wants to be a lawyer but spends his days viciously hounding Dale (Andie MacDowell), a medical intern. Jules (Demi Moore) loves cocaine, sleeping around and her stepmother dying. Alec (Judd Nelson) and Leslie (Ally Sheedy) are stuck in a song and dance where the former cheats on the latter because she won’t marry him. Wendy (Mare Winningham) seems like a decent sort and, as a result, the film doesn’t seem all that interested in her. This leaves Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), an insufferable prig of a journalist, who continually boils everything, from love to education, down to be a horrible manmade construct designed to fool us all into being nice to each other. As if, somehow, that’s possibly the worst that could ever happen in Kevin’s miserable, over-opiniated life. Oh, he’s the worst.
What I’m suggesting is these are not people you would share a bottle of water with, let alone nearly two hours of your life. And, after a particularly smug opening that sees everyone laughing at Billy nearly killing himself and Wendy in a drink driving accident, the film really ramps up the problematic issues. Perhaps the biggest offender is Kirby who borders on psychopathy in his pursuit of Dale. Starting by showing off his Bambi eyes, Kirby slowly evolves into a full-fledged Patrick Bateman who thinks nothing off driving up a snowy mountain to rip his ‘loved one’ out of her cabin. It’s a bizarre and unnerving series of events made all the more repugnant when Dale admits to being ‘flattered’ by his actions. Squint and you’ll still struggle to see who this whole affair is aimed at: Teenagers or sociopaths?
The cast try their best to give the leaden dialogue the zip, zap, pow of a Billy Wilder flick, but their attempts are limp. Whilst they all learn something new about themselves come the credits, the audience realises they’ve learnt nothing about any of them. Interestingly enough, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club came out the same year as St Elmo’s Fire, sharing a large majority of the same cast as well. I’m not saying that The Breakfast Club, with it’s moral of ‘if you want to win the guy, just change everything about yourself’, is a monument to quality film-making, but at least it had the good grace to be fun.