K&M RETRO REVIEW: “St. Elmo’s Fire”

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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).

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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.

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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

3 Stars

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25 thoughts on “K&M RETRO REVIEW: “St. Elmo’s Fire”

  1. Though I grew up during that time, I’ve only seen this in bits and pieces, never the whole thing. I plan on changing that one of these days. I’m not in any rush and this review justifies that sentiment.

  2. I may have been born in the 80s but I’m not too fond of it. St. Elmo’s Fire is an alright film but if it’s on TV, it’s only for nostalgic reasons.. I felt the whole “Brat Pack” thing was just overrated as I don’t really think there’s a lot of great movies from that era aside from Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink but that’s it. Of course, one would ask about The Breakfast Club. You know what, I’m not really fond of that film either as I thought it was overrated and it certainly didn’t exactly reflect my own experience in high school where I just basically didn’t really fit in with anyone.

    • It could be considered a polarizing decade and I don’t think it is the best for movies. But I do love it. I graduated high school in 1989 so that was the decade of my youth. There is a certain respect I have for many of these films that is partly based on nostalgia but also based on memories of the time these films came around. Some have a hard time surviving outside of those bounds.

  3. Once again, appreciate your always thoughtful and considered reviews Keith. I’ve been wanting to get to ‘Fire’ for some time now but never felt a huge kick to get it done. Hm. . . .

    • Thanks Tom!

      This is definitely a movie of its time. It’s definitely not a great movie. Yet I still recommend it because there is pretty interesting message at its core. And I won’t deny the nostalgic influence.

    • It’s far from great for all the reasons mentioned. A lot of the negativity centers around the unfair stigma attached to the Brat Pack. But at the same time they did fall into roles like these which eventually led to sputtering careers. As a movie this one is flawed. Still I have fondness for this picture.

  4. Interesting to read your thoughts on this one, Keith. Having rewatched both this and The Breakfast Club earlier this year I found St. Elmo’s Fire a real disappointment, and it really hasn’t aged well at all; I first saw it when I was a teenager and must have been suckered in by the whole brat pack thing at the time! Of course I’ve changed in the interim myself, so when I rewatched it I found that I couldn’t care less about any of the characters, except for the one played by Mare Winningham, and it seemed like a bad soap opera for the most part. (Though I think the original intention was to make something quite soap opera-y, so I guess I shouldn’t really criticise Schumacher for that.) What did you think of the Rob Lowe scenes? For me they were the worst moments.

    • I thought Lowe’s scenes were all over the map. He was milking that ‘bad boy’ type for all its worth. There were a couple of his scenes that I thought worked but others that I thought were too much. As I mentioned Estevez’s were the worst for me. They really went overboard and at times felt like a different film.

      This does have a soap opera vibe going but I do think there is a deeper message that I found effective. It’s just getting to that message can be a little rocky.

      • I didn’t really buy Estevez’s character either, or the whole jaunt to see Andie MacDowell. I always liked the actor though, even though he is pretty limited! Haven’t seen him in anything for a long time.

      • I haven’t either. The last I heard he was doing some directing. He wrote and directed his dad in “The Way” which I enjoyed.

  5. I remember liking this one when I saw it all those years ago, but not sure how I’d feel about this now (and other 80s movies I used to love). It certainly had that soap opera vibe w/ all those beautiful people, ahah.

  6. I did not care much for it when it came out but thirty years later I gave it another chance. I hated it . Every character is irritating and stereotypically pompous. My nostalgia radar will not steer me to this ever again.

    • As I mentioned, they all play types and that is something most of these actors struggled to get out from under. I agree that most are pompous and self-centered but that is kind of the point. They come out of school with that air but reality hits them in the face.

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