At one point horror master John Carpenter was set to direct the 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” the gig eventually going to Mark L. Lester after Universal shifted gears when “The Thing” underperformed at the box office. Obviously, no one at the studio was gifted with precognition as the parasitic alien thriller became one of the greatest sci-fi horror films of all time. Almost four decades later, like some sort of cosmic reparation, Carpenter returns, providing a terrific score with the help of son Cody and Daniel Davies. The spark from the synth-driven thermal energy is sufficient to ignite the latest adaptation of King’s novel, unfortunately, there aren’t enough combustible elements to fully develop this smoldering remake.
To be fair, the 1984 film with Drew Barrymore, a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, and a supporting cast made up of Hollywood heavies including George C. Scott, Louise Fletcher, and Martin Sheen, never reached its full potential. The film felt bland, like a cable television “movie of the week.” The new adaptation by Keith Thomas (“The Vigil”) doesn’t strive for improvement. Like its predecessor, it’s not a bad film, the cast is solid especially 12-year-old Ryan Kiera Armstrong, and the special effects aren’t over the top, but the screenplay by Scott Teems (“Halloween Kills”) is uninspiring as the characters react exactly as we expect.
The plot involves the McGee family, parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), and their 11-year-old daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), the title character who has yet to learn how to control her pyrokinesis. In fact, the whole family has psychic abilities. Andy’s gift is mind manipulation but at a cost. He can control people, but it drains his energy causing his eyes to bleed (elevated from a nosebleed in the 80s film). Vicky can move objects, hurling them through the air at her attackers. The now parents came into their powers after taking part in an experiment while in college that involved the low-grade hallucinogen LOT-6.
Back in the present day, we see the McGees on the lam, hiding out from the secret government agency (The Shop) that wants to use the family’s powers for nefarious purposes. This means moving around a lot after Charlie’s flare-ups which cause destruction that could lead the baddies to their location.
Like Marvel’s Hulk, the preteen is transformed into Firestarter once she gets mad, here, it’s at the hands of school bullies and an unfortunate cat or two. Charlie’s rage causes fires that can be targeted at individuals, so she is learning to hone her skills, and thanks to her father she is beginning to grasp how to deescalate a protentional flare-up. All that training goes right out the window when her family becomes threatened by The Shop’s psychic bounty hunter John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) and the agency’s leader Captain Hollister played by Gloria Reuben as the character swaps genders (Martin Sheen handled the role in the ’84 version).
The biggest obstacle facing Thomas’ remake is the film’s inability to connect with the audience. The human element takes a back burner, so we are left with unrelatable characters that resemble superheroes (novice X-Men) coming to grips with their powers. It’s the exact opposite of what made Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” so engaging. We feel empathetic towards the title character, an average teenager going through puberty. Her telekinesis never takes away from the audience viewing her as a real human being even after the big finale. In this new “Firestarter” the storyline is rushed and so there’s no room to make these characters more humanlike. Every scene feels like a moment just before all hell breaks loose and then it does. This could also be the fault of sloppy editing.
There’s a lot to enjoy bout 2022’s “Firestarter” which makes it watchable. Armstrong’s acting is first-rate, significant since I’m sure she had to use a lot of imagination when dealing with the special effects, and Efron easily segues into a more mature role as the concerned father. I wanted more of Greyeyes’s Rainbird and Reuben’s Hollister, both actors are excellent in such a limited capacity, but it’s veteran actors Kurtwood Smith as Dr. Joseph Wanless and John Beasley as Irv Manders who are wasted in what amounts to cameos, the two iconic actors, once B-movie staples, deserved bigger roles.
Finally, “Firestarter” doesn’t feel like a modern-day interpretation of King’s novel. It’s more grounded in the 80s than its ‘84 predecessor. There is a scene in which Rueben channels Samantha Eggar’s performance in 1979’s “The Brood” as Hollister threatens Charlie, yelling at her during the big finale, that screams 80s. Then there’s Carpenter’s terrific and nostalgic score, plus the usage of one of my favorite 80s industrial bands Nitzer Ebb, as the song “Control I’m Here” makes it into the soundtrack.
I had high hopes for this new adaptation of King’s novel, especially since director Keith Thomas is behind “The Vigil” one of the scariest films of 2021. Every movie is better in the theater including “Firestarter” but if you want to save some cash you can stream it on Peacock.
(2 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters and streaming on Peacock