The new Blumhouse adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter may be light on expected action and scary but doubles on fire.
The 1984 film version of Firestarter was one of the weakest early Stephen King adaptations, so it makes sense that someone would eventually give it another try. Even King himself is not a fan of director Mark L. Lester’s film, which stars Drew Barrymore as the main character, a young girl with pyrokinetic abilities. It’s hard to see Blumhouse’s new version as an upgrade, though Ryan Kiera Armstrong is more convincing as Charlie McGee, whose dangerous powers make him the target of a secret government agency nicknamed “The Store.”
That power comes from Charlie’s parents, whose time as an experimental subject of the Store is reduced to a montage during the opening credits in this version of Firestarter. Charlie’s father, Andy (Zac Efron), and mother, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), are both given a drug called Lot Six, which gives them both telekinetic and telepathic abilities. The combination of his parents’ genetics has made Charlie even stronger, as the film makes clear during the somewhat goofy opening scene about baby Charlie accidentally burning his cell phone on his bed.
It turns out to be just a dream sequence, and the film actually begins with Andy, Vicky, and Charlie living rather stable lives, despite the constant fear of being discovered by Toko. Charlie has been hiding his powers for years now, but he’s starting to have a hard time holding back, and his parents worry that a single outburst could attract the wrong attention. Those concerns are justified as an incident at school puts McGees back on the Shop’s radar, led by the ruthless Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben). He sends assassin John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), another former Toko experimental subject developing his own powers, to capture Charlie by any means necessary.
Scott play a Native American character, as he did in 1984’s Firestarter, the update leaves Rainbird a weaker role. Rather than a scheming villain, he is a morose victim, trudging through his duties with a tired sense of duty. That leaves only Hollister as the real antagonist to McGees, and Reuben seems to be misguided in this role, failing to project any authority or character threat. He also had almost no screen time in the first half of Firestarter, much of which involved McGees standing around and fretting about what to do next.
Like the 1984 film, this version of Firestarter is surprisingly boring for an adaptation of King, almost without fear. The previous film suffered from a severe lack of fire, and here director Keith Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems make up for it with a few extra scenes in which Charlie loses control and sets off a fire. One of the scenes of Charlie trying to redirect his powers while in the school bathroom is the closest to this original Firestarter suspense, in a room filled with steam that hides the out-of-control Charlie from his unsuspecting teacher.
It’s a problem when that one scene has more suspense and terror than an explosive ending, as Charlie storms the Store and unleashes the full power of his powers. Most Firestarters look pretty cheap, like the slightly upscale Syfy TV pilot, especially at the film’s climax, which is set in a high-tech government facility that should be just a series of inconspicuous corridors. Instead of dynamic actions, there is a single security guard in a room full of monitors, reacting with alarm to events happening off-screen. Charlie lit more fires than he did in the previous film, but it wasn’t all that impressive.
Armstrong makes Charlie more sympathetic and more determined than Barrymore’s version, but even he can’t sell cheesy lines like “Liar, liar, pants on fire” when Charlie musters his strength. Efron completes his transition from teen idol to father figure, but Andy is a bland mentor whose emotional connection with his daughter is perfunctory. Greyeyes finds herself in a difficult middle ground as Rainbird, whose character is so unconvincing by the time Firestarter reaches an ending that will surprise anyone familiar with the source material — be it the King book or the previous films.
Firestarter’s narrative and action are limited, and the world-building is sketchy, leaving out a lot of detail. So disappointing to see Thomas act on itfollow up on his incredible 2021 debut feature, The Vigil, with this generic film, remembering how distinctive and resonant The Vigil is in its familiar horror template. Firestarter also squandered musical contributions from John Carpenter and his regular collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, who put together a moody, synth-based score that was far better than the accompanying film.
Blumhouse’s signature wit on a lower budget falls short here, and the filmmakers didn’t find many creative ways to make up for the lack of resources. King hasn’t considered this new version of Firestarter yet, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be more impressed with it than last time.