Is there any track record spottier than the one for Stephen King adaptations? There are definitely a handful of gems spanning the decades, many arguably from the “ABC mini-series” era of the 1990s, although we don’t talk about The Langoliers . . . no, no, no. There is no denying, however, that there have been more than a few that not only failed to hit the bullseye, but missed the target altogether. This is most apparent when filmmakers try to take another stab at adapting King’s work, often failing to capture the atmosphere and dread that made the source material work in the first place, with Andy Muscietti’s IT admittedly proving an exception to the rule.
As such, we have a new adaptation of Firestarter, this time courtesy of Blumhouse and up and coming director Keith Thomas. Ryan Kiera Armstrong takes on the role immortalized by Drew Barrymore in the original as the pyrokinetic Charlie McGee, while Zac Efron plays her understandably overprotective father Andy. Andy of course, has his own unique ability to “push” people, making them do and/or see whatever he wants them to, having been previously experimented on, along with Charlie’s mother Vicky. As per the source material, Andy and Vicky have tried to stay under the radar, knowing that “The Shop” will want to study Charlie and use her as a weapon. Led by Captain Hollister, they’ve realized that Charlie’s explosive powers are a result of the experiments they performed on her parents, before she was conceived. Of course when Charlie fails to suppress her abilities while at school, Andy snaps into survival mode, knowing that The Shop will stop at nothing to find them.
Arguments on the necessity or lack thereof with regards to remakes will never cease, but this latest interpretation of Firestarter struggles to justify its existence almost immediately. For a film that clocks in at almost half an hour shorter than the original, there is no excuse for this film to be as slow-paced as it is. Obviously it’s important to establish characters, flesh out backstories, and try to build tension. Unfortunately, Firestarter spends too much of its runtime trying to do this, at the expense of a satisfying climax. Theoretically, seeing more of both Andy and Vicky struggle to raise Charlie as her powers mature should make for a more engaging viewing experience, but so little of it ultimately lands. One parent wants to train Charlie how to use her powers while the other wants her to suppress them, and it just feels patently cliched. It’s something for Andy and Vicky to be in conflict with, but it’s a conflict that never gets a resolution within the context of this story. This could work if this subplot had more time to breathe, but the film realizes around the halfway point that it needs to become a chase thriller, before stumbling disastrously just as it’s about to cross the finish line.
Firestarter is a woefully indecisive film in what story it wants to tell and what overall tone it should have. The film is so front-loaded with turgid melodrama that the occasional dips into nostalgic camp feel jarring and out of place. There are a few scares in the film, including a terrifying nightmare that Andy experiences, as well as the sight of one of Charlie’s victims (two if you count a small animal, so consider this a warning), but overall the film is incredibly deficient in terms of genuine horror. Overall, there is a lack of balance in terms of story elements, character beats, and technical craft that results in Firestarter feeling astoundingly dull. Rushing to its clunker of a third act, the film also employs some rather laughable plot contrivances, especially when it needs to get Charlie to the main villains’ headquarters. Even worse, the film looked at the original’s expansive and bombastic final set piece, and decided going smaller was a good idea for some reason (. . . Blumhouse being cheap is the reason).
As for the threat of “The Shop”, which is featured in several stories written by Stephen King, Firestarter puts a remarkably scant amount of effort into giving us a reason to fear them and what they want to do with Charlie. Kurtwood Smith makes an all too brief appearance as Dr. Joseph Wanless, who originally experimented on Andy and Vicky, giving an admittedly impactful performance as he tries to convince Gloria Rueben’s Captain Hollister that trying to use Charlie as a weapon could be legitimately catastrophic. Already capable of causing localized explosions at age 11, Wanless believes Charlie would become capable of far worse as she matures. Of course, as I’ve already stated, the film does a surprisingly poor job of actually visualizing this. As Hollister, Rueben seems incapable of matching Smith’s level of depth in her own performance, playing the character with that aforementioned camp, against the debilitatingly dour tone of a large portion of the film. She’s a paint-by-numbers mustache twirler struggling to justify her place within an otherwise messily-constructed film.
The standout of Firestarter’s cast however, even surpassing Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong, is Michael Greyeyes as Rainbird. Originally played by George C. Scott, it’s not only a great opportunity to have an actual indigenous actor in the role, it is the only character arc in the film that feels in any way substantial. Through this performance, we are sold on the wariness and ruthlessness of his character, forced to hunt Charlie and Andy down, while wrestling with his own issues with what The Shop is planning. If this film does anything better than the original, it’s this portrayal of Rainbird. The best villains are usually ones that can convince you, if even only for a moment, that they’re in the right, and Rainbird makes a frighteningly compelling case for his own motivations. Efron and Armstrong do what they can to make you care about Charlie and Andy as father and daughter, but it’s sadly overshadowed by everything Greyeyes and the filmmakers have done to build a compelling, almost sympathetic villain.
Incidentally, the only other saving grace of this remake comes in part from the man once tapped to direct the original. Universal ultimately passed on John Carpenter as director for the 1984 version of Firestarter after the critical and commercial failure of The Thing, but bringing in him, his son Cody, and collaborator Daniel A. Davies to score the remake was easily one of the smartest decisions the filmmakers could have made. The emergence of synthwave and other genres of 80s-inspired electronic music in modern indie horror has been unavoidable over the past few years, and I won’t argue with anyone who may be critical of its implementation. Firestarter’s score definitely basks in nostalgia almost to a fault, but there is still depth and texture to its orchestral themes and haunting chords. There is emotion and propulsion to the score that drives the story and character development in a far more engrossing fashion than the actors and filmmakers ultimately could. It’s a testament to John Carpenter’s wealth of experience as an aural storyteller as well as a visual one.
As Firestarter came to its anti-climactic end, I found myself asking, “What even was the reason?” Was this supposed to be an earnest update of a cult classic adaptation of a Stephen King novel? Was it a star project for Zac Efron to continue to grow out of the shadow of High School Musical? Was it a horror film? Was it a redemptive opportunity for John Carpenter? To be sure, Firestarter sadly only succeeds in answering that last question, leaving viewers with one of the most disappointing films of 2022 so far. Meandering and surprisingly lifeless, the film can barely muster a flicker, much less a flame.
[1.5 out of 5]