Rewatching “St. Elmo’s Fire” is like stepping into a time machine. As with so many films from its period, it contains numerous components that are unequivocally and distinctly 80s. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was released right in the heart of the decade, July of 1985, and that seems amusingly fitting. Its cast, its look, its mechanics all function like a movie made within those definable 10 years. In some ways that is a compliment because the 80s were so indelibly marked with a unique cinematic style and playfulness. In other ways it is not a flattering statement because many of these films drown in that style and never feel as imaginative or important as they try to be. They simply don’t stand up well outside the boundaries of their decade. All are true when it comes to “St. Elmo’s Fire”.
The film was directed and co-written by the ever so divisive Joel Schumacher and featured most of the major members of the unfairly branded “Brat Pack”. Along with “The Breakfast Club”, “St. Elmo’s Fire” is considered the centerpiece and measuring stick of the Brat Pack genre. Again, this actually contributes to the cool and nostalgic feel, yet watching this cast, all young and promising at the time, wasn’t without a certain amount of baggage (whether fair or not).
At first it would be easy to dismiss “St. Elmo’s Fire” as a film that does nothing and says nothing. Most of the film plays out like scenes of encounters and conversations pasted together and bound only by a thin semblance of plot. That’s actually pretty accurate. But to say the film says nothing would be inaccurate. Often times its storytelling and messaging is muddled and messy, but there is a deeper meaning that I still find effective.
The story follows seven close college friends who have recently graduated from Georgetown University. The film’s intent is to show us their transition from the comforts and structure of college life to the responsibilities and unpredictabilities of adulthood. Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, and Mare Winningham each play ‘types’ (as they were known to do in many of their films). We get the yuppie, the bad boy, the party girl, a buttoned up nerd, the brooder, etc. It is a bit surprising and frustrating as none of them stray too far from their types.
Still some of the characters carry some weight and their intersecting stories are interesting. Ally Sheedy is the most compelling of the bunch and she has the most interesting and thoughtful story. On the opposite end you have Estevez and his throwaway character. His weird and sudden obsession with a past college crush (played by Andie MacDowell) is silly and disjointed. Most of the other characters fall anywhere in between, but ultimately it is their group dynamic that the film banks on and for the most part it works. The performances are pretty solid and even when the material flounders a bit they are often able to salvage the scene.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” was trampled by many critics who saw it as a huge waste of time. The film doesn’t do itself many favors. It meanders a bit and you can’t help but recognize its feelings of self-importance. It simply isn’t as cool or as smart as it wants to be. But I still think its a good movie and I still think it contains a satisfying message. Perhaps some of my appreciation is rooted in unashamed nostalgia. I’m willing to admit that. Ultimately I think there is too much here to write off, even if it is a little rough around the edges.
VERDICT – 3 STARS