We Didn’t Start This ‘Firestarter’

The IP was burning while the world was turning

Flameout is an on-the-nose but fair way to describe Firestarter, a wet blanket of a pyrotechnic chiller-thriller that weeps when it should sizzle. Sad and tedious shouldn’t be the first words to describe any horror film, let alone one based on a chilling Stephen King novel. But this movie version makes those descriptors hard to avoid, especially when the 1980 book and the 1984 big-screen adaptation stand as superior versions. If you’re going to rekindle this story, it better burn bright.

It also better feel relevant, especially if you’re taking a very ’70s-specific tale of an off-the-grid family evading a secret government agency and setting it in today’s hyperconnected world. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a “cash-only” clan like Andy McGee (Zac Efron), wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), and tweener daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) functioning in the modern world without cell phones, computers, bank accounts, or digital devices of any kind. “I don’t have Google,” confesses Charlie to her snickering classmates before getting very hot under the collar. “I want stupid wifi!” she screams later at her parents, making her mom’s arms burst into flames. Girl clearly aches for TikTok.

FIRESTARTER★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Keith Thomas
Written by: Scott Teems
Starring:  Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Kurtwood Smith, John Beasley, Michael Greyeyes, Gloria Reuben
Running time: 94 mins

Charlie is the title character, a genetic unicorn with the fire-conjuring powers of pyrokinesis. Her abilities are underdeveloped, though, mainly due to her dad’s insistence that she “stuff it down” and self-sooth when the urge arises to get lit. Her parents also have what they call “the push”: mental powers to manipulate those around them.

Andy refers to himself as a life coach, but his real ability is to lock eyes with people and puppetmaster them into giving him money or anything else he needs. Vicky has it too, since she and Andy were lab rats back in college for a mysterious organization called DSI which injected them with a chemical compound called Lot 6. But Andy is the breadwinning hustler in the family, even though his brain hemorrhages and his eyes bleed whenever he pushes too hard.

DSI—which, in the book, had the corny-yet-creepy moniker The Shop—has been searching for the McGees ever since they took off with their baby girl. It’s Charlie they really want, since the now-dotard doctor who presided over the program warns that she could eventually use her mind to create a nuclear explosion. So DSI contacts an ex-employee turned mercenary named John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), an Indigenous American they experimented upon who also has “the pushing” and seems equally matched against the family—unless Charlie learns to develop her powers first.

Cue a Rocky-like training montage in the woods where we see Charlie develop the aforementioned powers. Incidentally, the film’s special effects are curious, at times looking like Charlie is effectively a fire-breathing dragon or at the very least shooting out massive fireballs like she’s in a Pokémon game. Either way, the bad men working for DSI better hope they have a lot of aloe vera and petroleum jelly to nurse their blistering wounds.

Firestarter is a handsome-enough remake, yet another improbably shoestring production from prolific low-budget horror producer Blumhouse that has better-than-average acting and a stylish veneer. But its tonal gloom ultimately extinguishes a far more inflammatory story about child exploitation, government gaslighting, and scientific overreach, as well an obvious writ-large metaphor for the perfidies of puberty. This film seems more content to wallow in its own dull dread, at least until a predictably conflagratory climax that defies enough emotional and frankly logistical logic to make it feel like a few set-up scenes were throw onto a narrative ash heap. Blistering, Firestarter is not.

Zac Efron sets fire to his career in ‘Firestarter.’

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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