Review: Lacking Any Spark, a New Adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter Never Really Ignites

The recent attempt to re-ignite author Stephen King’s work as film adaptations after the first It movie blew up the box office (followed by a solid remake of Pet Sematary) hit a bit of bump with It Chapter Two, and has now all but stalled out with a redo of the 1984 lower-tier adaptation of Firestarter (the original starred Drew Barrymore, fresh from her role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). Back in the 1980s, Firestarter was more of a science-fiction story, with bits of action thrown in. But in today’s cinema world with a new superhero moving coming out every month it seems, this new version feels like an origin story, complete with a young person with special powers learning to control their deadly abilities while fending off those who seek to capture and control them for their own purposes.

In the new version, Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays young Charlie McGee, who lives with her parents (Zac Efron as Andy and Sydney Lemmon as Vicky), who seem to possess powers that control the minds of others as well. Andy has somewhat embraced his abilities and does self-help work with patients who want to quit bad habits like smoking. They probably think his process works through post-hypnotic suggestion, but it’s something more blunt and permanent. He literally alters their mind so smoking, for example, disgusts them to the point where they never consider doing it again. While Andy doest that, Vicky has opted to hide her powers and never use them, encouraging Andy to teach Charlie to do the same with her powerful pyrokinetic powers (she can start fires and so much more, all with her mind).

Essentially, Firestarter is a chase film. A secret government organization, led by Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), has been after the McGees since they escaped a testing facility where they were given the drugs that gave them their abilities. The family is always ready to scram if they believe they’ve been discovered. This time around a Native operative with powers named Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) is on their tail, and even manages to torment them to the point where Charlie begins to cut loose with her fire-making abilities, making her scared but also giving her a sense of power. An incident at her school after Charlie was bullied is only a taste of what she’s capable of.

Directed by Keith Thomas (who helmed the truly creepy The Vigil in 2019) and working from a screenplay by Scott Teems, Firestarter is never really injected with any vital energy. The film is a fairly streamlined retelling of the King novel, but with none of the weirdness of the original film (like wildly inappropriate casting of George C. Scott as Rainbird). As much as it appears that Zac Efron is trying the best he can to add some intensity to the proceedings, the material is almost working against him by having him play against stock adversaries with no clear agenda, just vaguely acting menacing. It’s about the most boring and mind-numbing way to play an antagonist, and almost everyone here takes the same tone, with perhaps the exception of Greyeyes, who at least has some sympathy for the McGrees, since the experiments that turned them into super-beings did the same to him.

The new Firestarter doesn’t really improve on or alter the tricks or storyline of the first film. If anything, it feels pared down and less a cinematic experience and more a movie of the week (do they still have those?). Even the fire effects seem cheap and basic. Plus, for you cat lovers out there, there’s an especially brutal and heartless cat killing that I really didn’t need this week (one of two I saw in a 24-hour period). This one is highly skippable, especially as a theater-going experience. The best thing I can say about Firestarter is that it’s mercifully short and highly forgettable.

The film is now playing theatrically and streaming on Peacock.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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