‘Firestarter’ Review: Zac Efron in a Remake That Doesn’t Burn Brightly

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In the ’70s and early ’80s, the era that defined him, Stephen King came up with a whole lot of horror-story metaphors for anger. There was Carrie, the angry telekinetic nerd-turned-pranked-prom-demon, and Christine the angry car, and Cujo the angry dog, and the novel that was the greatest of King’s rage mythologies — “The Shining,” published in 1977, which was all about the hidden anger of middle-class men, with the frustrated aspiring writer Jack Torrance (not a domestic abuser but the sort of man who would have a few drinks and then yank his son’s arm too forcefully) standing in for what was at the time a new awareness of the ideology of masculine fury. Jack Torrance was a portrait in the self-justifying pathology of toxic male anger, which is why the gothic tale of his descent still resonates.

And then there’s “Firestarter.” It was a novel about a girl with the power — and the anger — of pyrokinesis. Yet unlike Carrie or Jack Torrance or the other protagonists of King’s best novels, Charlene “Charlie” McGee doesn’t have something grandly deep and meaningful to be angry about. She and her telepathic father are being pursued by an ominous government agency, and her incendiary gift will flare up in response, but she has had this talent since birth. There’s not much psychodrama to her flames of hell.

The original movie version of “Firestarter,” starring the ironically cuddly Drew Barrymore, came out in 1984, and it was probably the worst King adaptation to date — King himself was on record as hating it. But as studios strip-mine the last half century of pop culture in search of IP that can hit chords of nostalgia, it isn’t only beloved shows and movies that are ripe for remakes. There’s also the desire to remake the duds ­— to do it better, to make good where they went wrong. Hence a new “Firestarter,” updated to the present day.

Barrymore, fresh off “E.T.,” was only eight years old when the first film was shot. Ryan Kiera Armstrong, the star of the new one, is 12. Barrymore had more idiosyncrasy, but Armstrong has a soft-edged scowl — she knows how to cry through her embers. And the movie gives her plenty of reasons to go full boil, like when the kid at school who looks like Mason Reese hits her in the back of the head with a dodgeball, or when she incinerates a cat who scratched her, or when she learns that John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), the agent and assassin dispatched by The Shop to capture her, has murdered her mother.

But these situational plot turns are cut-and-dried kindling. The new “Firestarter” is a mom-and-dad-and-feral-kid-undercover story that turns into a dad-and-daughter-on-the-run road movie, and the whole thing plays like “Logan” done in the worst humdrum rhythmless made-for-streaming style, the lighting flat, the soundtrack heavy with John Carpenter’s old-school one-man-at-the-synthesizer horror music, because if you took that sound of processed dread away you wouldn’t have much else.

We can see what must have attracted the producer, Jason Blum, to having another go at this material. Charlie and her folks, played by Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon, are a lot like prototypes of the X-Men — “ordinary” folks with alien abilities. There’s a good creepy opening-credits sequence, done in high-contrast color video flashback to Andy (Efron) and Vicky (Lemmon) as college students being interviewed by the Department of Scientific Intelligence before they’re given the experimental hallucinogenic drug called Lot 6; it’s this experience that causes them to become telepathic and (in her case) telekinetic. The whole CIA-tinkers-around-with-LSD backdrop of “Firestarter” has a potential that King’s novel exploited, but in the new movie it’s the merest of backdrops.

Andy, played by Efron in an unflattering beard, earns his living as a hypno-therapist who can get rid of your smoking cravings in a Skinner-box heartbeat, while Charlie, in school, is considered to be a freak because she doesn’t have Wi-Fi. (The family can’t afford to risk being tracked.) The always welcome Kurtwood Smith is on hand as Joseph Wanless, the Shop doctor who developed Lot 6 and foresees a time when Charlie, having grown older, will have the power to cause a nuclear explosion with her mind. “Terminate the girl,” he seethes, “or one day she will destroy us all.” In a funny way, the film presents that as a high compliment. It treats Charlie, in her destructive cool, as a kind of messiah — Saint Joan of the apocalypse.

But just when the fun should be getting rolling, “Firestarter” turns into the most luke-warmed-over of paranoid-conspiracy films, a thriller stripped to the bone, with The Shop, run by a snappish Gloria Reuben as Hollister, reduced to an annoying bureaucratic abstraction. The visual effects feel dated, maybe because there’s only so much you can do with things exploding into an oversize blaze. This “Firestarter” never catches fire, and rarely even finds a note of inviting retro-ness, maybe because King’s novel, beneath it all, was actually a warped piece of 1960s nostalgia, an homage to the days of “Burn, baby, burn.”

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Originally published at variety.com

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