‘Firestarter’ review: No match for the Stephen King novel

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Though Stephen King is renowned as a horror writer, his novels and stories are really about American life, with elements drawn from history, politics, pop culture, regional quirks and — more than anything — the internal conflicts that pull families apart. This is something filmmakers adapting King’s work often miss, as they focus on the big hooks of his books (werewolves! a killer dog! a juvenile murder-cult!) and skip the finer points.

For the most part, the new version of King’s “Firestarter” is truer to the 1980 novel’s spirit than the 1984 movie adaptation, which was more focused on the raw mechanics of the plot than its larger purpose. The 2022 version’s screenwriter Scott Teems and director Keith Thomas aren’t scared off by the book’s thorny relationships or bone-deep despair. And yet they still can’t figure out how to make their “Firestarter” as full and complex as King’s.

Though the story’s been updated to the present day, the premise is the same. Zac Efron plays Andy McGee, who along with his wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) developed psychic powers as the result of the secret government drug trial they participated in as college kids. Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays their preadolescent daughter Charlie, whose own pyrokinetic abilities — which allow her to start fires with her mind when she’s really angry — have drawn the attention of the same agency that experimented on her folks.

For most of the movie, Andy and Charlie are on the run, trying to elude the program’s big boss Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) and her psychic operative John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes). But hope is in short supply for the McGees. Institutional arrogance ruined Charlie’s mother and father; and it turned Charlie into a human weapon, with minimal control over her powers and no honest prospect of a normal childhood.

Thomas, who previously made the effectively spooky low-budget ghost story “The Vigil,” handles the horror parts of “Firestarter” reasonably well. Whenever Charlie loses her cool (so to speak), her skin-melting fury is as gory and nightmarish as it should be. And the production has scored a coup in enlisting the legendary horror director and soundtrack composer John Carpenter to provide one of his hauntingly minimalist scores, co-written with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.

But at the same time, Carpenter’s contributions here are a reminder of how expertly he handled his own King adaptation: 1983’s “Christine,” which retained all the adolescent angst and interpersonal tension that make King’s “haunted car” story really go. Thomas and Teems’ “Firestarter” sets out in a similarly thematically rich direction — starting as the study of an angry dad, cursed by his youthful mistakes and unwilling to shoulder his responsibilities for their consequences. But it gets lost along the way.

The main problem is that “Firestarter” is meant to be an episodic saga, moving through all the places where Andy and Charlie think they might be safe, before the hunters on their trail drive them to their ultimate destination: the facility that creates super-psychic freaks. The 2022 version is too short; and it often looks too cheap. It lacks a sense of scope. The climactic conflict arrives abruptly, before the characters and stakes are strongly established.

Worst of all, the film ends with the suggestion of a possible sequel, which retroactively detracts from what came before. Is this “Firestarter” supposed to be a more faithful and keenly felt King adaptation than the 1984 version? Or is it just another attempt to cash in on a familiar title?

When it’s a cautionary tale about an unusual family who’ll never know a moment’s peace because of their past choices, “Firestarter” is worthy of its source material. When in its last half-hour it turns into chapter one of a potential new superhero franchise, it joins the long list of Stephen King movies that are all gimmick, no guts.

‘Firestarter’

Rated: R, for violent content

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts May 13 in general release; also available on Peacock

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Originally published at www.latimes.com

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