Did we really need a new take on Stephen King’s 1980 novel Firestarter? The 1984 movie starring Drew Barrymore was reasonably compelling in that way that most early King movies were, if not particularly exceptional or memorable. (Aside from the highly unfortunate “red-face” casting of George C. Scott as a Native American government hit man, which, yikes!) And some may remember that John Carpenter had originally been set to direct that first adaptation of King’s story about a young girl with a penchant for psychokinetic pyrotechnics, yet was removed from the project thanks to the underperformance of The Thing. (The job eventually went to Mark L. Lester.)
So, the good news first: You could look at Carpenter’s inclusion in this version – he composed an original score, along with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davis – as some sort of act of contrition for that earlier act of blasphemy. As for the bad news? See: the rest of the movie.
The story remains the same. Andy McGee (Zac Efron) and his wife, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), met in college as test subjects in an FDA clinical trial that turned out to be a government experiment for a mind-altering chemical compound. (The administering agency, a shadowy operation known as “the Shop,” appears in a handful of King works.) As a result, both Andy and Vicky have telekinetic and telepathic abilities, which they’ve passed on to their daughter, Charlie ( newcomer Ryan Keira Armstrong). And as the title suggests, she can also use her mind to start fires.
The agency sends John Rainbird (thankfully played this time by an actual Native American, actor Michael Greyeyes) to capture Charlie, killing Vicky in the process. Father and daughter go on the run; they barely last a day before he’s captured. But the duo have a “psychic connection,” so Charlie, on a mission to save her father, and spends about a minute and a half of screen time in the woods like some kind of Yoda-less Skywalker, training herself to use her fire. power properly. Then she goes to get him.
Firestarter gets off to a strong enough start – there’s an inspired opening credit sequence of creepy video footage from the experiment, some thoughtful questions about parental responsibility (do they have Charlie hide her power, or learn to use it?), and a Running on Empty aspect to the family’s stop-and-go, off-the-grid lifestyle. From there, however, director Keith Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems rip away a lot of the original narrative, and most of its stakes. The lean, mean Blumhouse approach, usually so effective, makes the picture feel merely half-baked – and the big climax, which should go over like gangbusters, feels like it was shot in someone’s dad’s factory on a three-day weekend.
Efron’s quite good, quietly present and underplaying the role. Armstrong does her best in a mostly impossible role. Kurtwood Smith, as the original administrator of the drug, comes off best; the veteran character actor (Robocop, Dead Poets Society) seems to understand his scenes require the dial to be set at “utterly unhinged” at all times. As for Gloria Reuben, cast as the most evil of the evil villains, she’s saddled with the clunkiest expositional dialogue – including the second most groan-worthy line, “You are a real-life superhero” – and she performs it poorly. (The most groan-worthy line, for those keeping track, is Charlie’s climactic “Liar liar, pants on fire.”) The effects are dodgy and unconvincing. The emotional investment is nil. The running time is only 94 minutes long, thus proving there may, in fact, be a merciful higher power out there. It’s still a four-alarm disaster.