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Firestarter

Bringing Stephen King's 1980 novel to the big screen for the second time, this dull remake only burns two things: its audience's time and patience.
By Sarah Ward
May 12, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
May 12, 2022
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Would the latest big-screen adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter have been better or worse if it had included The Prodigy's hit of the same name, aka the most obvious needle-drop that could've been chosen? Although we'll never know, it's hard to imagine a film with less personality than this page-to-screen remake. Using the 1996 dance-floor filler would've been a choice and a vibe — and a cliched one, whether gleefully or lazily — but it might've been preferable to the dull ashes of by-the-numbers genre filmmaking that's hit screens instead. Zac Efron looking so bored that blood drips from his eyes, dressing up King's 1980 story as a superhero tale (because of course) and having its pyrokinetic protagonist say "liar liar, pants on fire" when she's torching someone aren't a recipe for igniting movie magic, or for even occasionally just lighting a spark.

That said, the best thing about Firestarter circa 2022 is actually its 'Firestarter'-free score, and with good reason. It hails from legendary original Halloween director John Carpenter, plus his son Cody Carpenter and regular collaborators Daniel A Davies (all fresh from 2018's Halloween and its follow-up Halloween Kills). It's a savvy touch not merely for the kind of atmospheric, eerie, mood-defining electro-synth sounds that only the elder Carpenter can deliver, but because he was originally slated to direct the first version of Firestarter in 1984, only to be ditched because The Thing — now a stone-cold sci-fi/horror classic — didn't do well enough at the box office. While both features could've desperately used Carpenter behind the lens, at least the initial flick didn't feel like all it was burning was the audience's time and patience.

Then, now and in King's book, Firestarter follows the McGee family, whose lives would blaze brighter if they didn't have abilities most folks don't. After volunteering for a clinical trial in college, Andy (Efron, Gold) and his wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon, Fear the Walking Dead) have telepathic and telekinetic powers; being experimented on with mind-altering chemical compounds will do that. And, from birth, their now 11-year-old daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, It: Chapter Two) has been able to start fires with her mind. How director Keith Thomas (The Vigil) establishes this backstory says more than it should about the movie, how blandly it turns out and what it might've been with more flair. A flashback to Charlie getting fiery as a baby is laughable, and kindles exactly zero thrills, scares or unease. But, flickering over the opening credits as old video footage, Andy and Vicky's time as test subjects ripples with tension and creepiness — that's swiftly extinguished and never felt again.

Unsurprisingly, the McGees have spent years attempting to blend in, hiding their powers and fleeing the shady government department, The Shop, that's responsible for their situation — and now sports a keen interest in using Charlie as a weapon. Alas, as the girl grows, holding her abilities back is becoming harder. Andy and Vicky argue about what's better: training her to suppress the flames or teaching her how to harness them. Then she literally explodes at school, The Shop head honcho Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben, City on a Hill) puts bounty hunter John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes, Rutherford Falls) on their trail and the heat is on. (No, that track from Beverly Hills Cop, which reached cinemas the same year that the OG Firestarter did, doesn't feature here either.)

When a film gets its viewers thinking about the songs that aren't on its soundtrack, and more than once, it's a flaring warning sign. It's a scorching indictment of how uninvolving the new Firestarter is, too. Its predecessor isn't great, only really proving notable for starring a nine-year-old Drew Barrymore, but at least its chase-driven plot was propulsive. Here, Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems (another Halloween Kills alum) scale back the story to spend half of the picture dwelling in the McGee's incognito existence, barely a few scenes on the run, and then turning in the least climactic finale in The Shop's secret base they possibly could. It all smacks of trying to cash in on King fandom after It and It: Chapter Two's huge success, and also continuing producer Jason Blum's penchant for remaking, reviving or riffing on movies gone by (see also: the Groundhog Day-but-horror Happy Death Day franchise, the latest The Invisible Man, Freaky Friday-but-horror flick Freaky and the past two Halloween films).

At least this Firestarter doesn't have a white actor playing its First Nations hitman, although that doesn't mean that Greyeyes — who is so great in streaming sitcom Rutherford Falls — gets anything resembling a fleshed-out part. At least his character isn't written as inappropriately fascinated with Charlie this time, a wholly unpleasant aspect of the original's narrative that's thankfully cut. Asking much of its cast isn't on the new Firestarter's agenda, though. Reuben is cartoonish and saddled with clunky dialogue ("you are a real-life superhero," she somehow spits with a straight face); Kurtwood Smith (The Dropout) goes unhinged with aplomb as the man originally behind the mind-bending drug, but is underused; Armstrong is mostly tasked with scowling a lot. And while that blood oozing from Efron's peepers isn't genuinely caused by his visible lack of interest in his role, and there's a quiet power to his passive performance, it's the most relatable thing in the movie for audiences feeling just as underwhelmed.

At least Firestarter 2022 is short, too, clocking in at 20 minutes less than the initial feature; there's a difference between burning fast and dazzling, however. When the psychokinetic pyrotechnics come — less often than you'd think in a film called Firestarter — the movie just looks cheap, the budget seemingly extending to a wind machine, a smoke machine, some shoddy CGI and piles of ashes. Letting King's underlying themes blaze away instead isn't the flick's aim, either. Firestarter is still about the sins of parents playing out through their children, as well as the ills of government wreaking havoc on ordinary families, but only in the broadest and most simplistic of ways. Even the Carpenter score, as welcome and excellent as it is, unintentionally undercuts the film — reminding the audience that the iconic filmmaker did helm a King adaptation once, aka 1983's haunted car flick Christine. Rewatching that is a far better move than seeing this cold Firestarter rehash fail to catch aflame.

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