Director: Keith Thomas
Stars: Zac Efron, Gloria Reuben, Ryan Kiera Armstrong
Stephen King’s Firestarter sits somewhere unassuming toward the bottom of the mid-tier of his work, and the same could be said for it’s 1984 adaptation starring a young Drew Barrymore. By this yardstick the call for this remake seems relatively minor, yet here it is. Still, there’s a good argument to be made that so-so movies are the best targets for do-overs. Doing battle with canonised classics and fan favourites can only get you into trouble.
Alas, even a second go at Firestarter fails to make the story truly ignite. Mark L. Lester’s 1984 film powered out of the gate, mixing up chronology to throw us in at the deep end, but then trundled through it’s second and third acts. It’s greatest asset was George C. Scott, who made wine out of water as government hired gun Rainbird. Keith Thomas’ 2022 remix trims a good 20 minutes off of his forbearer’s running time, but lacks even Lester’s opening act punch.
Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky McGee (Sydney Lemmon) are parents to a young girl named Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), whose repressed pyrokinesis is once more starting to manifest. Her fantastic condition is the result of her parents’ college-age participation in government-backed medical trials; a process that turned them into first-generation psychics (all of this is neatly covered in the film’s opening titles). Vicky has let her telekinesis grow rusty over the years, while Andy’s ability to push people to his own will increasingly takes a toll. Charlie’s reawakening draws government agents ever closer, as Michael Greyeyes’ Rainbird is tasked with bringing the child back into the fold.
King’s story feels liberally lifted from Cronenberg’s Scanners. It did then and it does now. Thomas and his editors may have condensed down the material but in the process they’ve hollowed out what little awe this story may have once inspired. Thomas favours extreme close-ups of his actors a lot of the time, while DP Karim Hussain maintains a burnt umber palette that compliments the fireball outbursts, but which often leaves Thomas’ talking heads lost in a murky haze. Disembodied, they often feel as though they have no correlation to one another.
Though Google and Netflix are name-dropped throughout the movie, Firestarter feels like a throwback through and through. This sense of temporal bleed is furthered by John Carpenter’s collaborative work on the score. Easily the most striking feature of this iteration, it nevertheless confuses the sense of when and where this is all happening. Firestarter 2022 has the feel of a TV movie from the late ’80s or early ’90s, and that extends to its overall quality.
Kurtwood Smith’s appearance as Dr. Wanless – brainchild of the psychic serum responsible for all this – further this sense of deliberate throwback, keying up memories of his pulpy genre heyday (RoboCop etc). But bafflingly he’s given only a single four minute scene in which he is wholly upstaged by some quite dubiously ripe dialogue (“brainfucked since birth”). This isn’t the only example of the script running into trouble. There’s a scene here in which Efron is moved to question the former gender identity of an incinerated cat, for instance.
Efron often seems to be straining himself, struggling to maintain a melodramatic register that isn’t his forte. But it is indicative of the direction being given across the board. Gloria Reuben is sternly sincere as the gender flipped Captain Hollister (she’s the one who has to contend with the aforementioned “brainfuck”ing), and possibly comes out of this the strongest. Lemmon is fine, but has little. Young Armstrong, meanwhile, makes precious little impression as the movie’s titular firebomb.
So this hellfire coming-of-age story has little to get hot under the collar over. Granted, it places Black women in a number of positions of authority and breezily normalises this. Otherwise, this is only one to seek out if you’re knowingly after something tepid and disappointing. Which, I mean, why would you be?