Directed by Keith Thomas
Charlie is a Firestarter – a twisted Firestarter – and has been since she was born. Whenever she gets stressed or upset, flames soon follow – so you can imagine her parents fear her reaching puberty. A pre-credit sequence, followed by one of those exposition-heavy montages where we zoom in on typed-up notes with words like ‘telekinesis’ and ‘experimental’ tells us they have powers too. Andy can get inside people’s heads and ‘push’ them – think the Jedi mind trick – and Vicky can move items around with her mind. Hot on their heels is the Department of Scientific Intelligence, aka The Shop: a secretive government agency that made mum and dad this way as part of a series of experimental drug trials. As such, the family must lay low and do whatever they can not to stress out their kid before she sets the world alight.
No, it isn’t the most original premise. Though to be fair, when King wrote the source material in 1980, the shadowy organisation and magic child plot won’t have felt as pedestrian. Nor would yet another story about a female character mastering their superpowers by learning to control their emotions. However, in the days of Stranger Things, X-Men and the Marvel cinematic universe, it’s something you’ll likely have seen before in several other forms. Heck, this new telling even plays up the superhero aspect. Of course, there’s also the 1984 film – which I’ve still never seen. So from conception, Firestarter is fighting an uphill battle for relevance. Not that it has to be a problem: plenty of other films have shown us originality isn’t as important as a decent story told well. However, there are major issues with how this one is written. Most crucially, except for Charlie herself, nobody feels like a character in their own right. Instead, they function as a didactic supporting part in a shallow morality story.
For instance, it’s good that Andy and Vicky have differing philosophies on how to raise their daughter, and it’s a good source of tension. Yet we get very little insight into their relationship, or even their parenting when they aren’t debating how best to help her. King’s strength as a writer has always been putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but in this flick, the characters aren’t relatable, and the situation isn’t new. The early bits about the family staying hidden and the weirdness of being a little girl growing up without the internet is ok (it’ll attract the feds). However, after racing through them, we’re left with a passable but unremarkable offering. Zac Efron, now old enough to credibly play a dad, albeit without the dad bod, tries hard but has little to work with. Same with Gloria Reuben as the main baddy, Captain Hollister. Still, maybe the worst served member of the cast is Michael Greyeyes, as Rainbird: a native American gun for hire who was also part of the trials. As an antagonist, he’s pretty bland – in understandably removing the now problematic elements from the book, screenwriter Scott Teems (Halloween Kills) leaves almost nothing. A late attempt to give him an emotional arc is laughable and implies a load of content was cut to make it just over 90 minutes.
Other issues come from the source material itself. While this is a relatively loose telling of King’s book (I can’t comment on the 1984 film), it still has most of the same story beats. Like it, we build to an anti-climax as the open roads give way to nondescript corridors in an ugly building and close-quarters combat. Unfortunately, the action scenes aren’t up to much either – we have no equivalent to Carrie’s prom. Instead, they’re damp, clumsily paced and look as if they were done on a TV-movie budget. Not that the last part needs to be an issue. The similarly themed Freaks, which is among my favourite films of the past five years, worked around its clear financial constraints with a characters-first approach and careful world-building. Hence while the few set-pieces were minimalist, they were also tense as all heck. But in contrast, there isn’t enough drama or depth to Firestarter to make it function as much other than an action-led superhero origin story. And with so many others out there, it can’t compete.
Still, there are some plus points. Director Keith Thomas is a competent director, and while this lacks the many personal flourishes he showed with The Vigil, he makes it look good if workmanlike. I suspect that, like many great indy directors, an attempt to make a mainstream movie has seen him compromise. John Carpenter’s soundtrack is notable too, if also somewhat by the numbers. It’s his usual synth and drums, and at points, it enhances the scenes – especially a key one that in infuses with an otherwise unearned emotional weight. However, these few moments aside, it mostly simmers away in the background. Really, the best part of it is Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who lights up the screen as Charlie. Her transition from making flickers to throwing flames may be sped up – like how The Fantastic Four mastered all their abilities in a single scene. Nonetheless, we sense her struggling with how to use them and whether or not she’s “a monster”. Hence even if you aren’t hugely engaged by her tale, you will still care about her.
None of this has been surprising. King isn’t just a horror guy – he’s written fantastic dramas, and as anyone who has read his magnum opus The Dark Tower can say, his sci-fi can outstanding. However, often he’ll have a cool scenario and then fail to do much with it. To most of his constant readers, in which I include myself, Firestarter is a mid-tier book. It’s not up to much – especially not by his high standards, though it’s also far from his worst (in my opinion probably Cell, which also sucked on the big screen). It makes sense that the film is roughly the same level. Frankly, if anyone called it their favourite film version of a King story I’d assume they haven’t seen many others. But it’s nowhere near as poor as things like The Mangler, Dreamcatcher or Maximum Overdrive. See it, maybe even mildly enjoy it, but you’ll probably never think of it again. I doubt it’ll spark much interest.