Firestarter; 2022; Written by Scott Teems from the Stephen King novel; Directed by Keith Thomas.
Starring Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Michael Greyeyes, Gloria Reuben
Universal; Rated R; 1h34min; Theatrical and Peacock May 13, 2022.
As a voracious horror reader born in the early 80s, it’s likely no doubt that I am a very big Stephen King fan. I’ve read most of his work (baring the last few novels, I’ll catch up eventually) and have watched just about every adaptation. Heck, the 2017 version of It was the first movie we went to as a City of Geek group before the site was founded (and then collectively disappointed in the sequel when we saw that together a few years later – Bob & Tony both reviewed).
But honestly, Firestarter is not a beholden property to me. The book and the original adaptation from 1984 are merely okay. Not his best work as an author, or a great film. In many cases, an underwhelming previous version is a perfect opportunity for a better take. But Firestarter is an odd choice; as Stranger Things essentially remade it in part of its 80s-property amalgam through Eleven and the Mysterious Government Agency. So did Logan, by way of Shane, if we’re being honest.
But we have that, and now we have this new adaptation of the work.
Firestarter is an idea I don’t think ever really pulls together cohesively. Part of that is the jarring shift halfway that restarts the momentum of the story; shifting from chase to training.
Andy (Efron) and Charlie McGee (Armstrong) are on the run from The Shop, a mysterious government agency that tries to manufacture and control people’s Shine (to use a term from elsewhere in the King-verse). In an experiment to create mental abilities, two college kids met and fell in love, and eventually had baby Charlie, with more power. Dad Andy can Push – control people’s actions. Charlie can start fires (and other gifts in this film if the scene demands it). The Shop wants them to experiment on their powers, and eventually, they get them (um… spoilers I guess). Here the plot kinda restarts and the pacing changes to a slow build after the high energy paranoia of the chase half.
I totally get why the shift occurs and the back half is just as important to the story. But screenwriter Scott Teems (or someone on the studio end) must not have felt that, opting to focus on the chase portion and eschewing the back portion that does its characters and many of the themes and points of the novel dirty.
I’m also not a purist to the book for any property. Changes have to be made for a new medium. Changes for whatever reason, whether it be updating for modern audiences (or timeframe), putting focus in different places or seeing how an alteration can work – especially if the previous version follows the source pretty much point to point. The Pet Semetary re-adaptation of a few years back changed the kid that was killed and re-animated to explore the subject from a slightly different point of view. It was a bold choice that presented some new, interesting takes, but didn’t quite work but I can see why.
If the spirit of the source is still present, it’s all good.
The changes made for Firestarter remove the basic spirit of Firestarter, turning trust and finding (and exploiting in some cases) the goodness in people into a skeleton of that story. Some work, such as more time with Charlie’s mom (Lemmon) before she is Fridged. She still is, but instead of a moment of flashback, we get to see their lives. Others seem like a good idea but soon realize it hobbles the focus – introducing Rainbird (Greyeyes, this time played by an actual Native American instead of not-so-much George C Scott) earlier gives him more to work with the story itself but it made me realize the back half is going to be different; I wondered how it would shift it all, as a connection with Rainbird and Charlie that drives the heart of Charlie’s character, how she reacts to it all and her acceptance of the powers. How is this major aspect altered? It’s dropped. Which leads to the worst changes. The Shop training is just dropped in favor of a low-rent Carrie kill-a-thon.
I’ve spent a lot of time explaining how the changes from book to film do Firestarter no service, but we must also look at it on its own. Separated out, Firestarter is still not a good movie. I starts out bland enough, just middling but descends to just awful by the end.
It’s an awkward movie overall. Focuses are strange, there is more time spent mourning a cat Charlie accidentally kills than her mom, murdered just hours before. Characters are set up and then never seen again (Kurtwood Smith is wasted nor does he call anyone a Dumbass), the added time with the mom gives her more character but it comes with a school subplot that is unnecessary. It’s strangely cruel and mean, antithetical to the power of trust in the book and original film. Not to mention, it presents ideas of mercy and regret of violent actions in the first two acts, and then immediately throws it all away for a burn, baby, burn kill ‘em all finale. It’s such a shift, it feels like the whole team of the first hour was sacked for a new group who did little to see what the first group did. It’s a film fighting for what is trying to say or do.
Add on really silly-looking effects and a 90s made-for-TV look and it just doesn’t work.
Many may scoff and question Zac Efron playing a dad to a 12-year-old, but he’s the best aspect of the film He gives his all, with a great deal of sadness behind his eyes and he carries the weight of the situation well. Sadly, Armstrong is poor as Charlie, mostly glowering and shouting lines. She comes off like she’s attempting to emulate MacKenna Grace’s determined stare but to no avail. The rest of the cast comes off about the same, awkwardly trying to sell clunky dialogue and exposition.
On the total plus, John Carpenter scores with son Cody and Daniel A. Davies (the trio also wrote the theme song to February’s Studio 666). Notable in being a solid score from a master, but sad in he was originally set to make the first film until The Thing failed at the box office.
It’s a shame Firestarter comes off flat and uninspired and just lost in itself, as director Keith Thomas made The Vigil last year. That film had a great look, a strong drive, and was frankly scary as hell. From the Vigil to Firestarter is such a huge shift I quality, I want to blame the producers rather than Thomas. I highly recommend you watch The Vigil (on Hulu) and skip Firestarter (on Peacock). Here’s to whatever Thomas next.