‘Firestarter’: Stephen King Remake Fails to Find a Spark
It was only a matter of time before someone got around to remaking this one. “Firestarter” is the latest revamp of a Stephen King novel that was already turned into a movie. The 1984 adaptation by Mark L. Lester endures in cinephile memories because of how bad it is, along with a somewhat endearing performance by a very young Drew Barrymore. With King still churning out new books nearly every year, the only reasoning behind this project is that anything released after 1980 is getting redone. An intriguing bit of curiosity is how this movie improves on the worst qualities of the original, while still missing what worked better. With Blumhouse Productions in charge, it’s no surprise it has the feel of a B-movie, but of the kind you would have seen on late night TV thirty years ago.
The story is about the same with a few tweaks. Married couple Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) are in hiding with their young daughter, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). As explained in the opening credits, Andy and Vicky were once part of a top secret experiment run by a corporation called “The Shop,” which gave them psychic abilities. Now their offspring Charlie has pyrokinetic powers. Basically, she can set stuff on fire with her mind. The couple is now trying to keep Charlie out of the Shop’s hands. They’re not that good at it considering they enter Charlie into public school, where everyone wonders why she has no cell phone, awareness of Google or wifi at home. An outburst exposing her abilities is tracked by the corporation. Its chief, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), “reactivates” an operative named Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to capture the girl.
The approach by director Keith Thomas is to make this “Firestarter” way more somber and moody than the original. There’s little humor and plenty of traumatizing life lessons for Charlie. During one fit, she sets a cat on fire and dad has to teach her about putting a suffering animal out of its misery. As you can expect, the special effects are certainly superior to the 1984 production, even if they amount to lots of CGI flames. What it is missing is the sense of motivation in the campier first movie. In that one, Andy (played by David Keith) is trying to get Charlie’s story out to the press in order to guarantee their protection. Villainous government men want Charlie to harness her power as a weapon. That logic applies here, but in very sparse dialogue delivered by Gloria Reuben in offices that look as if the electricity bill was never paid.
A few story elements that work better are Charlie being separated from Andy and finding creative ways to utilize her powers to find him. Michael Greyeyes, who was in the recent, excellent indie drama “Wild Indian,” was an excellent choice for Rainbird simply because it rectifies how the character was hilariously played by George C. Scott in the ‘84 movie. Somehow it’s still hard to figure out what to do with this persona. In the King novel he’s a pedophile, in the Lester film he’s some kind of twisted, mystical loon who wants to kill Charlie to absorb her power. For the 2022 edition, Rainbird is rewritten to somewhat represent indigenous suffering when he describes himself as one of the “original guinea pigs” of the Shop. The implication is the government always uses indigenous people first for its covert experiments. Too bad the plot never explores this further. Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who was also in “It: Chapter Two” and “American Horror Story,” is at least a worthy heir to the Barrymore role, bringing more anger and less innocence to the role.
“Firestarter” never rises beyond low-grade campiness, mostly because this story is so dependent on Charlie simply being able to set things alight. There’s not much the villains can do once she gets angry and any nuances or subtext King was aiming for get lost. At their best his novels are about vivid characters who can be even more fascinating than the scares. Zac Efron starts the movie with good, fearful tension then gets pushed to the background. The ending’s setting is changed but not the action. A lot of hallways and people get scorched. Amid all the smoke and stares, the best element of the movie is the music score by John Carpenter, son Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, which has the synth atmosphere of a ‘80s midnight movie. Some fun trivia: Carpenter was originally going to direct the 1984 “Firestarter” before being removed due to the poor box office of “The Thing.” Maybe composing a stellar score that stands above this so-so movie is history’s way of delivering sweet revenge. As for the rest, it may prove to be a curiosity King fans or horror aficionados will check out due to sheer familiarity, but it’s lots of smoke with no fire.
“Firestarter” releases May 13 on Peacock and in theaters nationwide.