By ROBERT DANVERS
Starring Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Sydney Lemmon
Directed by Keith Thomas
Written by Scott Teems
Day-and-date play on Peacock notwithstanding, this weekend marks the return of FIRESTARTER to the big screen, courtesy of Blumhouse and Universal Pictures–the latter of which opened the earlier feature version of Stephen King’s novel 38 years ago, on Friday, May 11, 1984. (Back then there were no Thursday-night preview showings, and “streaming” was something you didn’t want to have or do.) With Drew Barrymore headlining as incendiarily gifted/cursed youngster Charlie and an ‘80s-eclectic cast encompassing Oscar winners (three, count ’em!) and genre vets (including Martin Sheen and Dick Warlock), FIRESTARTER entertainingly rode the crest of the King adaptations wave. There was later the 2002 sequel/would-be reboot FIRESTARTER REKINDLED starring Marguerite Moreau as a 20something Charlie, but for many–like this reviewer, who was at the ’84 movie’s opening night with a stoked crowd–that first telling of the story, while unavoidably subject to “Well, it wasn’t the [400-page-plus] book” nitpicking–was the one that ignited.
The late Martha De Laurentiis, associate producer on the previous movie, receives an executive-producer credit on the 2022 one; succeeding Mark L. Lester in the hot seat–er, director’s chair is Keith Thomas, who made a promising feature directorial debut with the Blumhouse-backed THE VIGIL. Lead actress Ryan Kiera Armstrong has already notched several genre credits, including IT: CHAPTER TWO and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: DOUBLE FEATURE, and this movie, like its predecessor, carries an R rating. So why, then, does today’s FIRESTARTER peter out? Let’s sift through the smoking embers…
In suburban Massachusetts, Andy McGee (Zac Efron) and wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon, granddaughter of legendary actor Jack Lemmon) are debating the best course of raising their 11-year-old daughter Charlie (Armstrong). With good reason; while in collegiate “experiments” circa 2008, the parents were dosed by shadowy government agency The Shop with the experimental drug Lot 6. As a consequence, Andy developed iron-grip mind-control skills, which he now amusingly puts to income-generating use as a “life coach,” and Vicky acquired telekinesis. Once born, Charlie developed pyrokinetic abilities that she has had difficulty controlling, yet has managed to keep all but buried. But a bullying incident at school, with Charlie being taunted as “weird,” sets her off–literally–and her loving parents fear not only for her psyche but also for their familial-unit safety, since they have already eschewed a digital/Internet footprint and relocated several times in attempts to keep out of The Shop’s reach.
They are right to be afraid, since an at-home incident with Charlie places them on The Shop’s radar; at its HQ, new head honcho Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) cajoles formidably psychically gifted assassin John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD) into tracking down the McGees. When he does, the resulting conflagration necessitates Charlie’s reassuring her anguished father that she’ll “only kill bad people, I promise.” He responds by pleading with her to be pacifist–which will, of course, prove impossible as the McGees are forced to go on the run and ultimately get backed into a corner.
The crux of the storytelling should be Charlie’s painful coming-of-age in extremis. Yet, despite multiple leaning-in references to incipient young-womanhood (one of which comes from Charlie herself), the movie doesn’t put in the work to dramatize its lead character’s evolution. Given horror’s exciting recent distaff-driven global surge in front of and behind the camera, FIRESTARTER might have benefitted from a female auteur given free rein and communing with Armstrong. While the latter seems capable of digging deep, the screenplay by Scott Teems is not; nuance is largely frittered away, and as a result the potential for a Dafne Keen-in-LOGAN-level performance goes untapped. The other actors, particularly a soulful Efron, do what they can, but are given largely rote dialogue and beats–that is, when they’re given much at all; the 1984 movie ran 115 minutes and this one is a mere 94.
Early and often, Thomas’ direction seems to intentionally forego showmanship in favor of a more low-key, naturalistic take; this suited, and advanced, the clammy survive-the-night private terrors of THE VIGIL. But on what should be a bigger canvas, it doesn’t take; the storytelling feels ever more parched and pinched. Also on the latter tip, Blumhouse seems to have gone penny-pinching on FIRESTARTER. This is unfortunately downright dousing on the effects side; the bursting-into-flames shots seem to get cut away from as soon as they’re underway, while the charred remains of various injured parties–some still living (at least temporarily)–seem unconvincingly CG’ed and invite not so much morbid study as squinted shrugging.
One aspect of FIRESTARTER does attain the requisite tempo that the material invites. From the opening frames of the picture, underneath the Universal logo, the musical score by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies percolates with inchoate menace and undertow-inevitability. This trio adds fuel to FIRESTARTER that has elsewhere been tamped out.