We are all fortunate to live in an era where Stephen King still continues to pen new, engaging novels, and there continues to be a long stream of great King adaptations like The Outsider and the two-part It film. King adaptations have been such a longstanding staple of the horror landscape that we’re now seeing a host of re-adaptations that run the range of great (It, at least the first part) to a mixed bag (The Stand) to terrible. With some heavily caveated exceptions, Firestarter is the latter.
Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) are your average, everyday parents except for three central facts. First, they’re both subjects of experiments that granted the pair odd powers (versions of telepathy and telekinesis, respectively). Second, their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) has an always present but growing pyrokinesis that’s getting hard to control. Third, they’re on the run from a mysterious agency called The Shop that wants to capture Charlie and use her powers. Sent after the family is John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), a bounty hunter with powers of his own coaxed out of retirement to find Charlie and eliminate any obstacle.
Firestarter had every element it needed to succeed. John and Cody Carpenter’s work on the score is unsurprisingly great. Efron is well cast, and he manages to add an emotional core and considerable nuance to his performance despite the character being vastly underwritten. Young Ryan Armstrong does well enough with the material she’s given, and Michael Greyeyes (who was a stellar addition to the cast and a vast improvement for John Rainbird over the original adaptation) is a solid choice who lands everything he’s given.
That said, the film has issues… and each and every one is avoidable. The script is barely serviceable, with every character underwritten. There’s little by way of adequate backstory, complex emotion, or engaging dialogue to help audiences connect with the characters and care what’s happening. They’re given little space to breathe in a script that keeps busy enough with events to be distracting, yet somehow none of them have weight so they don’t matter. The best performers in the film bring a lot but are often underused. Most tragically, Greyeyes brings an intimidating presence that’s entirely sabotaged by an undercooked backstory, shortchanged dialogue, and too little to actually do.
Most of the action is pretty standard, boilerplate stuff that could really work but which isn’t fully well-conceived or executed. For example, the fire… there are shots with VFX flames that should be emerging from young Charlie but which are obviously VFX layers added in post. What’s worse is that they’re not done thoughtfully—one key scene has Charlie off-screen when a clear flamethrower burst emerges supposedly from her. If Charlie’s whole being radiates fire, that’s not how it would look. If she’s using her hands, that’s also not how that would look. How exactly would it look like it’s coming from a flamethrower barrel, is she sneezing fire from her nose? At the film’s climax, these are likely not the questions one hopes the audience is thinking.
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There are a number of other issues that plague the entire film and really amplify these issues. As a whole, Firestarter looks cheap, and oh so many of the performances in the film seem like first takes—perfunctory at best, but you have to think… “they could have done better.” The primary exceptions here are, again, Efron and Greyeyes, who still deserved better material or better films entirely. None of this, to be clear, is blame placed at the feet of any performers in the film… they’re ultimately sabotaged by a range of factors that they surely don’t control.
At the end of the day, the major problem with Firestarter is it fails to feel like it mattered for the filmmakers. From the script to the chosen takes to the choreography, set design, VFX usage, it seems like a perfunctory job done quickly and haphazardly from first take to last. The only part of the film that seems like any love went into it at all was the casting, and even that was sabotaged in many places by a thousand cuts of small decisions elsewhere. In the words of Zac Efron from the vastly superior (and more horrific, in a weird way) film Neighbors, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”
Firestarter is available in theaters and on Peacock.