Firestarter is mostly a non-starter. A confused, rote, tired albatross full of conflicting themes, poor character development, and an unsure hand of how to streamline one of Stephen King’s most famous books. This, of course, is the 2nd big-screen adaptation to tackle King’s telekinesis drama. The first hit theaters in 1984, starring Drew Barrymore in a film (for all its many flaws) more sure of what it wanted to accomplish tonally and emotionally. The new film stars Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon as Andy and Victoria McGee. In college, the cash-strapped pair participated in a human experiment that required them to consume a drug known as Lot-6. The drug, unbeknownst to them at the time of consumption, ends up giving them telekinetic powers. Andy uses his “Push” power to enter and influence a person’s mind, Jedi mind trick style. Vicky… well Vicky’s psychic powers are a little vaguer, which is usually a bad sign for how prominent your character is going to be.
Together, the couple have a 9 year old daughter named Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), born after the experiment. Charlie, whose poor upbringing makes her an outcast at school, struggles to contain her latent ability to produce and weaponize fire. A catastrophic accident occurs, resulting in Charlie ending up on the radar of “The Shop” – the secret government organization behind the experiments, who will stop at nothing to abduct Charlie and use her power for their own selfish gain. Thus, Victoria and Andy must desperately find a way to protect their young daughter.
But, unfortunately, Firestarter falters at getting us to invest in its premise. The film has a lot of ingredients in its stew, but remains flavorless. It seems like a movie that’s stuck between a paranormal horror fantasy and an action heavy sci-fi drama, doing neither particularly well. The 1984 adaptation at least tried to uphold the horror elements of the novel, but the 2022 version is too dull to attempt anything scary, and too poorly baked to elicit genuine emotion. Perhaps the filmmakers believed mimicking anything from the 1984 film would be seen as campy in the modern age, but the film alternatively does nothing interesting. This permeates through the entire production – the drab, saturated cinematography to its slow pacing (despite a runtime of only 94 minutes), and it’s sleepy tone. Zac Efron tries his best, but even he can bring little charm to a film that refuses to give its characters personalities.
The movie’s approach, centering the sci-fi elements over the horror tone, reminds me of Freaks (2018), another film about a young girl with supernatural abilities and her struggle to protect them from vulturous forces. But Freaks succeeded because it dove into the child’s POV, thus keeping an air of mystery about what was going on, as well as what happened in the past, until the appropriate moments. And once those elements were revealed, the movie paid off those story elements with exciting and cathartic set pieces. In that vein, Firestarter could have taken notes from both Freaks and King’s novel, dropping us into the middle of the story and having Charlie slowly come to understand the world around her.
It’s a world that seems to house some commentary about how government control can harm the lower class. The McGees struggle so much financially that they don’t even have internet. Which begs the question how they’re able to afford that house, but that’s another discussion. It can be inferred that Andy and Victoria volunteered for the experiment because they were both desperate for money, and their trust in the government was betrayed. In many ways, the story is an allegory about using your power to punish nefarious forces, admittedly more power fantasy than realistically appliable to our world. As a result, the film should lean into the theatricality of its story, attempting to be as exciting as possible to get us to root for Charlie, just like Freaks did for Chloe Lewis. But the film’s villains are never quite interesting or dastardly enough for the audience to crave their demise.
The lone exception is the character of Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), a goon of The Shop with his own set of super abilities. However, the movie ejects the context and backstory that help color this character in the book, and thus his relation to Charlie greatly suffers. The climax to their rivalry is ultimately rather confusing, highlighting how the movie picks and chooses to honor the sense of morality than Andy attempts to instill in Charlie. It’s a shame as Greyeyes seems game for a juicier role, and Armstrong performs well as a young child actor, infusing Charlie with innocence and drive as well as a nasty side as the forces of evil pushes Charlie to her limits. It’s clear the movie wants to focus on the conflict between Charlie and Rainbird, but the two don’t have enough screentime or development to see this story thread to its full potential.
The worst part is, the bar for what this movie should be trying to accomplish isn’t even that high. Released simultaneously in theaters and on Peacock, this is a movie partially for the people who want to stay in with some popcorn, drinks, while spending a couple of fun hours on the couch. But Firestarter plays it too safe to be little more than a distraction that viewers get bored with as they start to look at their phones. It would help if the movie tried to be scary, suspenseful (there are quite a few times where you don’t care whose life is in danger on-screen), empathetic, inspirational, something. It’s unclear what emotions the filmmakers want you to feel, other than just sad porn – everyone on-screen is sad all the time, and we’re just bored. Maybe the 3rd adaptation is the charm…