Firestarter  Review: A Bland, By-The-Numbers Adaptation That Is Quickly Incinerated
For being one of modern literature’s most published, not to mention most imaginative, writers, it’s surprising that many Stephen King adaptations aim so small. Perhaps most filmmakers know they can’t even hope to hold a candle to such celebrated source material. In their helming of Firestarter (2022), director Keith Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems are no different, as their combined efforts are dull, if not quite lifeless, a reimagining of what is already considered a middle-of-the-pack effort from the King of Horror.
That may sound like a crack about the famed author’s talent, but it’s instead a commentary about oodles of missed opportunities on display here. Even without reading the original novel, one does not have to look far to notice how little the film serves the legacy of King’s contributions to the horror and suspense genres. Determined to capture the imagination of filmgoers in only an hour and a half, Firestarter sacrifices intrigue and character to do so. It’s a misguided adaptation stripped down to its barest of essentials, leaving a talented lead like Zac Efron and the fresh face of Ryan Kiera Armstrong left out to dry as their characters’ personalities are whittled down to the powers they rarely get to showcase correctly.
The film follows Charlie McGee (Armstrong) as she and her parents, Andy (Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), evade forces from a mysterious scientific agency. Having been tested on and granted supernatural powers by the agency in their youth, Andy and Vicky now worry about what is best for Charlie, who has developed an uncontrollable power to create fire with her mind in addition to inheriting her parents’ abilities. Even with such a basic premise, Firestarter opts not to expand upon it in any meaningful way, especially after an incident involving Charlie’s pyrokinesis blows the family’s cover and forces them on the run from those with ulterior plans for their abilities. The flaws are glaring and prompt, as even the first few minutes of the film establish an inconsistency in a tone that carries throughout the rest of the narrative. There’s no telling if screenwriter Teems wants the film to be viewed as horror, sci-fi, or domestic drama, and the product of his indecisiveness is a work that fails at all three.
It’s almost fitting, then, that the direction from Thomas risks less and less as the film rushes its way to an anticlimactic and unsatisfying conclusion. With Charlie’s powers becoming grander and, simply put, scarier with each passing minute, perhaps the most egregious stain on Firestarter and its handling of King’s legacy is that it isn’t scary at all. Even when its impressive visual effects reveal the gruesome aftermath of Charlie’s heated outbursts, the film still manages to leave a bad taste in the mouth for not taking full advantage of the revolting side of her abilities.
It’s not as if the film is hindered by what the current state of visual effects can accomplish. Instead, this is probably one of the chief things it should have going for it. Part of the reason a remake like IT (2017) feels like its own beast in the best way possible was due to the new range of visual opportunities that were capitalized on in order to create an entirely new and exciting playground for the shape-shifting Pennywise. Unlike the Dancing Clown, not once is Charlie made to feel all that threatening or frightening; the reason is that there’s not much of a character beneath all the pyrotechnics to begin with.
Firestarter is more than a disservice to what would be a gifted cast had the static screenplay not left them all chomping at the bit to get their hands on the overabundance of exposition that takes up close to two-thirds of the finished product. It’s easy to forget that Zac Efron is a great actor, with flashes of brilliance like his turn as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), demonstrating that he has what it takes to transcend a limited script in order to make a part his own. A similar point is made here, as some of the film’s more redeeming moments — as scattered as they are — find Efron making the best of his role as a protective father and harnessing as much chemistry with the young Armstrong as he can. Unfortunately, the script’s muddiness is such that every other character appears to exist within alternate cuts of the film. Even the welcome presence of Michael Greyeyes, whose role as Cherokee mercenary John Rainbird helps to correct the previous miscasting of George C. Scott in the role, is severely limited to the point that one has to wonder what he’s even doing in the film at all.
Perhaps the issue is the ubiquity of Stephen King himself. In this day and age, if we can’t rely on Marvel Studios for consistent output, we can certainly rely on those daring enough to bring King’s work to life on the big and small screens. While the best adaptations were left in the 20th century, King’s name alone has become such a brand that the mere mention of an adaptation means that interest among fans and horror aficionados will be enough to turn a profit regardless of the film succeeds or lacks in. The result is a landscape where genuine labors of love like IT and the criminally underrated Doctor Sleep (2019) are only occasional occurrences, barely offering enough to tempt people away from the lazy writing and pointless nature of cash grabs like Firestarter.
Not even in theory does the promise of something like Firestarter warrant much excitement. Yes, the original adaptation (1984), starring a rising Drew Barrymore as Charlie, was nothing to write home about, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who will defend the novel as King’s magnum opus. However, in an age where Stranger Things (2016- ), The Umbrella Academy (2019- ), and even smaller, unassuming films like Midnight Special (2016) have already maxed out popular culture’s fascination with superpowered kids resisting authority, the emotional investment runs thin in a Firestarter that is, in some ways, out of touch and, in most other ways, too little too late.