MOVIE REVIEW – One of the weakest adaptations of Stephen King’s books has been called the original 1984 film Firestarter, in which child Drew Barrymore played a fiery super-powered girl on the run from the US Secret Service with her father. It wasn’t King’s best book, but the film was much worse in return. We didn’t think even that could be undercut. But it did.
Stephen King’s The Firestarter was a perfect candidate for a fair Blumhouse remake. On the one hand, it seemed like they could have just improved on the first adaptation since even King considers the 1984 film version one of the worst book adaptations. On the other hand, it’s a reasonably slim, small-scale thriller from the master of horror, whose novels are much more ambitious and harder to adapt. And with Keith Thomas at the helm of this remake, there was hope that he would bring a similar dose of creepiness to the material as he did in his debut feature, The Wake. Unfortunately, this Firestarter remains a dead idea.
Mind controlling father, firestarter daughter
Andy and Vicky McGee (Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon) fall in love during an experimental drug trial for telepaths overseen by The Shop, a secret government agency. Years later, they passed on their psychic abilities to their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). But while Andy has learned to control his mind-manipulating power, which he calls “The Push”, Charlie is having trouble controlling his pyrokinesis, much to the disappointment and horror of his parents.
Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), who has been searching for Andy and Vicky since Charlie’s birth, learns of the family’s whereabouts after Charlie, a social outcast, terrifyingly unleashes his power during a game of dodgeball. He then sends Hollister Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), an Indian assassin, after the family, prompting Charlie and his father to take to the open streets in an attempt to escape the deadly clutches of The Shop.
Among the problems with Firestarter is Scott Teems’ script, which truncates King’s already slim narrative to a sketchy outline. The film’s introductory credits wisely do double duty: they provide the viewer with information about the McGee family and the experimental treatment. The government-funded secret experiment changed the lives of these two young people forever. Still, instead of jumping directly into the plot with Charlie and Andy’s escape and a flash of fleshing out their backstory, as King’s novel does, the film focuses on the lead-up to their escape and so boringly without any style that the film fails to set the right mood. In this respect, even the ’84 adaptation was much better.
An origin-story without originality
Charlie’s primary function in Firestarter is to burst into flames and kill people. The film works a bit like a superhero origin movie, only instead of focusing on Charlie’s development as an individual, it’s more of a blank slate. The character is undeveloped and largely unsympathetic. This is partly due to the limitations of actress Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who might have done better with a stronger director, and partly because Scott Teems’ adaptation offers no insight into the girl’s inner being or mindset. Armstrong’s main acting repertoire is a steely stare and a sulky frown, which she often uses. She is a walking plot device.
Another fundamental problem with the film is that it offers little tension and no one to connect with. Also, the technical aspects of the film are pretty poor (obviously, due to the low budget), and the special effects are so poor that they even undercut the ’84 version in places. Cheapness screams cheapness from almost every frame of the film. Blumhouse (which made the film) is famous for its ability to make a decent horror film on a low budget. This, however, is a case where lack of funds has resulted in an underwhelming final product. John Carpenter, who had developed a good working relationship with Blumhouse following the new Halloween cycle, was brought on board as a composer (alongside his son Cody and Daniel A. Davies). His score, which at times recalls the iconic work of Halloween, is the best thing about the production, almost making your heart bleed that his music was used for such a shoddy film.
The basic concept explores the possible dark side of superhero origins – what can happen when a powerful being is not tutored by a wise mentor or loving guardians but incubated in an environment of fear, hatred and death. This concept was novel when King published the book but has since been given significant roles in films such as Chronicle and Brightburn. The idea alone is not enough to justify an underwritten script and underdeveloped characters.
Fire, don’t walk with me!
Few authors have fallen victim to Hollywood as severely as King; this is just another title to add to the list. Although the ending of King’s novel is somewhat open-ended (allowing for more stories to be told in the same universe – the concept behind the 2002 miniseries), this version of Firestarter makes some significant changes, suggesting that further chapters are planned, either as a sequel or (perhaps more likely) as some kind of streaming series. While such a theoretically interesting possibility, this film leaves such a bad taste in the mouth that it’s hard to imagine that anything worthwhile could come out of this iteration of the story.