You know when Halloween costume companies can’t get licensing rights for a popular character and cobble together a vague echo of the real deal? Something like “Rogue Pirate with Eyeliner” instead of Jack Sparrow? That’s how 2022’s Firestarter feels, even as it bears a fiat of formal adaptation from Stephen King’s 1980 sci-fi novel about a girl with pyrokinesis on the run from government spooks. (The film hits theaters, and the Peacock streaming service, today.)
Although a lot of people fall prey to digitally underwhelming combustion, there is zero spark of the subversion or subtext that’s King’s stock-in-trade. It was missing from the 1984 film version with Drew Barrymore, too, but this fright show is so feckless it makes that average adaptation burn brighter by comparison.
Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the biological byproduct of Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), a pair of people with parapsychological powers propelled by illicit government experimentation. Vicky can move things with her mind but she’s getting rusty. Andy can “push” people to do his bidding, but the physical toll has grown harsher over the years.
For years, the McGees have lived off the grid to avoid detection by “the Shop,” which wants to neutralize, or weaponize, their daughter. But the unpredictable emotions of girlhood are getting the best of Charlie and her sensory awareness to manage her flame-throwing anxieties. After an incident at school draws the eyes of new Shop manager Hollister (Gloria Reuben), the McGees must evade the assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) and help Charlie harness her power.
Easily one of the skimpiest outings from the rigorously frugal horror producer Jason Blum, Firestarter feels so budget-conscious that the number of lit bulbs could be counted on two hands. Indeed, the only below-the-line professional with as much rigorous on-the-job training as the dimmer board operator seems to be the trainee assistant accountant. (A prominent credit for an assistant editor also suggests Firestarter was at some point whittled from substantial length to 94 minutes, all the more agreeably anonymous for the streaming churn.)
Director Keith Thomas is clearly aiming for some sort of muted, naturalist counterpoint to all of the bright conflagrations. But dimming his environments to emphasize their eventual eruption in flame is definitely a detriment given the deployment of dodgy CGI. It’s also unintentionally hilarious to see a school gym lit only by skylights during a dodgeball game, which would seem to be a liability even if there wasn’t a student who could torch the place if conked on the noggin.
Gone is any jugular-aiming joie de vivre screenwriter Scott Teems brought to his work on last year’s Halloween Kills. Efron may have aged into a dad role but hasn’t exactly matured into it, his flavorlessness ill-suited to fatherly worry. Even the thrumming synthesizer work from the legendary John Carpenter (who co-composed the score with son Cody and collaborator Daniel Davies) gets stuck in store-demo mode. That Carpenter would entertain a role on any reignition of Firestarter is surprising given his unceremonious dismissal from the 1984 project after The Thing fizzled at the box office. Knowing Carpenter’s laissez-faire attitude to living, he’s likely fine with the cleared check.
Sufficient funds and nothing more seems to be the M.O. for all involved here. Teems does return the character of Rainbird to the novel’s Native American roots, and with a fantastic actor in Greyeyes (magnetic in last year’s Wild Indian). But Greyeyes is given nothing to do beyond make his entrance in an introduction akin to that of Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter and utter mystic platitudes like “I don’t need to see your eyes to feel your fear.” The film recalibrates Rainbird to something less embarrassing than George C. Scott’s scenery-chewing version but it also does not exactly reclaim him with anything that reverberates. Teems tries to toy with the notion of Rainbird as an unexpected protector but trips that up by making him an unstoppable force. Gone is the subplot in which Rainbird attempts to coerce Charlie through compassion rather than violence. It junks both a sense of danger and any effort at barbed commentary about how the government would further exploit an indigenous person to execrable ends.
Rainbird’s curiously inert characterization is underscored by his narrative uselessness. Why send one man after the McGees when the Shop has a cabal of goons with contacts that can protect them from Andy’s power of persuasion? Then again, the Shop’s security guards watch Charlie torch no fewer than three people before enacting more aggressive measures, so …
By the time the film reaches a conclusion that utters a certain eye-rolling “s” word and unfolds in what resembles a concrete-corridor exit from a multiplex auditorium, there’s no trace of King left — only an exceedingly desperate jester.