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The Stephen King novel on which the new version of “Firestarter” is based was published in 1980 during a phase of the horror master’s career in which the writer seemed fascinated by kids with inexplicable powers. Charlie, played by Drew Barrymore in the 1984 film and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in this one, is cut from similar cloth as Danny from “The Shining” and the title character in “Carrie”—people who discover they’re not like normal kids. There’s nothing scarier than an out-of-control child. Trust me. King’s work would inspire generations—Elle in “Stranger Things” owes a great deal to Charlie, for one—which made a remake of this 40-year-old tale of pyromania inevitable. And yet, once again, inevitability doesn’t equal creativity. So often remakes feel more like contractual requirements than artistic explorations or updates of timeless themes. There is no better recent example of this than “Firestarter,” a film that goes through the motions with such apathetic predictability and pure cinematic laziness that you may want to set whatever device you’re watching it on ablaze.
This “Firestarter” opens with Charlie in school, not on the run like in the original. Of course, that’s going to lead to a brutal display of power. After a few close calls, Charlie kind of emerges like a phoenix after a dodgeball incident sends her emotions into the blazing category. The principal and teacher presume the fireball that came out of the bathroom stall was an explosive device, but mom and dad disagree on what to do next. You see, they have powers too, products of experiments from an MK Ultra type program run by something called The Shop. Dad Andy (Zac Efron, and, yes, I too feel ancient that Efron can now believably play a father) has an ability called “The Push,” which is basically mind control. His daughter’s powers seem amplified and uncontrollable. She even lashes out at her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) with a telekinetic attack. Mom and dad are going to have to do something drastic to protect Charlie and themselves.
Hiding in the shadows for years, The Shop emerges when Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) calls in a bounty hunter who can handle the Charlie situation “with discretion,” a morbid soul named John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), introduced brooding to emo rock, of course. He quickly gets to Charlie’s house, but the kid is being rewarded for nearly killing her mother with ice cream, of course. When Charlie and dad get home, they discover how hot it really is for them now and go on the run. Some screaming and explosions follow, along with a few attempts from dad to teach her how to control her powers. Mostly explosions, which look about as tactile as a TikTok filter.
The Blumhouse model is to keep budgets low, but they usually hire directors and productions teams who can hide the corners being cut with clever filmmaking choices. Not this time. “Firestarter” just looks cheap—in most ways, cheaper than the 1984 version—with no memorable craft elements or decisions outside of a cool, ‘80s score from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies. The score deserved a movie that knew how to use it more effectively and with tighter visual language. Everything here is close-up, boring coverage in flatly written dialogue scenes, and the action is even worse. It’s often hard to decipher what the hell is happening when things are supposed to be getting intense and director Keith Thomas does a miserable job with geography (largely because of the close-up, reverse shot structure that never puts two people in a frame in a room).
In a weird coincidence, there’s another film opening in some cities and on VOD this week about telekinetic kids called “The Innocents,” which Stephen King himself has praised, probably remembering a bit of that period when he too was fascinated by unpredictable little monsters. Find a way to watch that one instead.
In theaters and on Peacock today.
Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlie McGee
Zac Efron as Andy McGee
Sydney Lemmon as Vicky Tomlinson-McGee
Kurtwood Smith as Dr. Joseph Wanless
Michael Greyeyes as John Rainbird
Gloria Reuben as Captain Hollister