Back in 1984, the first adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter experienced a release that fizzled out instead of catching fire like Universal had hoped…
…Director Mark L. Lester’s film is mid-tier amongst the ranks of King adaptations—and commits the awful sin of putting an excellent though miscast George C. Scott in the role of the film’s indigenous character, John Rainbird—but it also features an explosive performance from a young Drew Barrymore, and a whole lot of impressive pyrotechnics. Fans of King’s story had hoped for a new iteration that might reduce the 1984 film to a pile of ashes by comparison. Unfortunately, it turns out with director Keith Thomas’s latest attempt at rekindling Firestarter, that the second time is not the charm.
Written by Scott Teems (Halloween Kills), this new Firestarter follows Andy (Zac Efron) and his wife, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), living a quiet, Wi-Fi free life with their daughter, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Turns out, the couple was part of an experiment that resulted in powerful abilities, which they have passed on to Charlie, who can start fires with her mind. When the secret government agency known as The Shop discovers where the family is in hiding, they send assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to retrieve them. But Hell hath no fury like a pissed off little girl with pyrokinesis.
Rarely have I seen a remake with less spark.
The differences between this and the 1984 Firestarter are instantly apparent, and it spells trouble from the get go. Rather than take the more action-oriented route of the original, which opens on a thrilling chase between Andy, Charlie and members of The Shop, Firestarter opts for a melodramatic approach, focused on Charlie’s struggle to lead a “normal” life. Draped in on the nose lighting that’s either too bright or overly dark and brooding—Charlie’s school must not have paid their electric bill, every room is so drab and grey—we watch the poor girl deal with her “weird” kid status. All of the other brats pick on Charlie for being poor and not having internet. Home isn’t much better, where Vicky insists Charlie is “special” and that they embrace her powers, while Andy is determined to suffocate who Charlie is so she can be like everyone else.
Cue scene after scene of overdramatic arguing, made worse by a trio of actors who share zero chemistry. Armstrong gives it her all and makes an impression as the fiery Charlie, but is often over-acting in comparison to Efron’s under-acting, who tends to lack conviction in the dialogue (which, to be fair, isn’t good). Where Lester’s film contained subtlety with the performances, Thomas’ adaptation pushes every emotion to the extreme, right down to Charlie screaming at the top of her lungs whenever she sets anything—or anyone—aflame. Considering the cast of the original, it’s no easy task to fill those shoes, but the players in this Firestarter simply aren’t up for it. At least this time around, Rainbird is properly cast, with a decent performance from Greyeyes. Too bad his character is reduced to almost nothing in this version, scrapping the cat and mouse relationship between he and Charlie from King’s novel and the 1984 film entirely.
Firestarter fails to find any spark with a pacing that rushes through scenes instead of letting them breathe, yet somehow still feels sluggish. What the original establishes in the first few minutes, Thomas’ version spends just under an hour accomplishing. The attempt to build up the relationship between Charlie and her family is a good idea on paper, but floundering performances and an oddly hokey vibe incinerate any emotional underpinnings. Poorly rendered CG flames are one thing. Obligatory shots of Efron’s abs and his cracking his neck before every single confrontation while blood pours from his eyes—I guess nose bleeds weren’t cool enough—is something else entirely. I’d like to say Firestarter is camp, in which the above would be just fine, but unlike this pun-filled review, the film lacks awareness and is in constant conflict between embracing the silliness of its premise and taking itself much too seriously. At the very least, it could’ve used a line like “evil burns tonight” to reassure me it knows what it is.
Other than some effective burn gore, the invigorating score by John and Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies is the only piece that’s working, yet even that is underutilized.
I don’t mean to condemn Firestarter to the seventh circle of Hell like this. It isn’t entirely “unwatchable”. In fact, it’s plainly “okay”. But that’s the issue. The best remakes reimagine the premise to offer fans something new and exciting with characters they’re familiar with. The worst are mere shot-for-shot regurgitations. Firestarter is neither. It offers nothing fresh, and cuts too much of the meat off the bone of the original to be considered merely a cheap copy, emphasis on the “cheap”. What few moments it does change—instead of Charlie setting brick walls on fire as in the OG, we watch her, gasp, test her powers on a pile of sticks—are at best underwhelming, bewildering and emotionally frustrating. Firestarter is so undercooked, it begs the question of why even bother in the first place?
In nearly every way possible, Firestarter is a remake that fizzles instead of sizzles. If there’s one good thing that comes out of it, perhaps it will be a reevaluation of the 1984 version in which the public finally acknowledges it’s not so bad. If we had to pick between the two, I wouldn’t expect this update to be the flame that’s still burning another decade down the line.
Firestarter is now available in theaters and on Peacock.
By Matt Konopka