With any subsequent adaptation, the hope is that a story improves on the version that preceded it — or at least feels as though it’s offering up a unique vision, an additional layer that makes the new adaptation purposeful in its insistence upon treading old ground. Regardless of critical assessment, recent King re-adaptations It (2017), It: Chapter 2 (2019), and Pet Semetary (2019) all did that. They felt like films that had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish. But the new adaptation of Firestarter, directed by Keith Thomas, has no clue what it wants to be, vacillating wildly between objectives over the course of its all-too-brief runtime. Is this one half of a television movie from 2003? Is this an extended pilot for a TV series? Is this just a means to retain rights? What it most certainly is not, to be clear, is a film that captures even a little of King’s novel.
The 1984 version of Firestarter, featuring Drew Barrymore, is no masterpiece, though it does invoke a level of nostalgia for its blend of folksy Americana and Cold War paranoia. It happens to be, at least structurally, one of the King adaptations that sticks closest to its source material. That film is directed by a filmmaker, Mark L. Lester, who would prove to have better success with action than horror. It comes as all the greater surprise that Thomas, whose low-budget Blumhouse debut The Vigil chilled audiences with an effective sense of dread, manages to make this new horror-thriller film so devoid of tension or stakes.
Firestarter starts off strong, with Andy McGee (Zac Efron) dreaming of his infant child bursting into flames. It’s a shocking jolt followed by opening credits covering flashbacks to the experimental Lot 6 trials, which heightened the latent psychic abilities of patients, including Andy and his eventual wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon). Most of the test subjects go mad, tearing out their eyeballs, screaming in agony. As prologues go, it’s an economic use of storytelling that whets the appetite for what’s to come. Too bad the rest of the film never matches that energy.
The story picks up with 11-year-old Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) struggling to keep a lid on her pyrokinetic powers. She’s the weird kid at school, depicted with shades of King’s other famed psychic, Carrie White. Her parents do not allow her to use the internet or cell phones so that they can not be tracked, making her a Luddite outcast among her peers. While Charlie’s mother, Vicky, has mostly given up on using her telekinetic powers, Andy uses his telepathy as an off-books, cash-only, self-help guru for clients with addiction. But there’s tension between Andy and Vicky in terms of how to raise Charlie. Vicky thinks she needs to train, to learn how to control it. Andy, meanwhile, thinks she needs to suppress, citing how his own use of powers has begun causing brain hemorrhaging — in the form of blood leaking out of his eyes. Neat trick, and an admittedly more horrific choice than the nose bleeds in the original version. The couple’s arguments about what to do with Charlie and her powers becomes repetitive, and a lot of time is spent hitting the same beats. The actors do their best with screenwriter Scott Teems’ limited, expository dialogue, but it’s hard not to feel your eyelids growing heavier.
Just when it seems like things will not pick up again, Charlie becomes angry at her parents for what they’ve made her — a monster, she says — and in a fit of rage, she ignites her mother’s arms. Andy, refusing to call 911, bandages his wife’s severe burns, and upon Vicky’s insistence, takes Charlie out for ice cream to cool her down, as one does. Charlie admits to her father that she meant to set him on fire instead. This is the kernel of an interesting idea, a shift in the devoted adoration Charlie has for her father in the novel and ’84 film. But nothing really comes of it, and the film does not offer Efron the chance to explore that reaction. Andy is made to offer platitudes about not hurting things and people, and the cost of using such powers, but there’s little sense of a bond between the two.
The Shop, the government agency behind the Lot 6 trial, sets out to capture Charlie. The agency’s director, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), who is saddled with the film’s worst dialogue, sends retired operative John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to capture Charlie. She also meets with Dr. Wanless (Kurtwood Smith), who led the Lot 6 experiments, and asks him to come back — then he’s never seen again for the rest of the movie. Rainbird kills Vicky, and Andy and Charlie have so little reaction to her death that it feels almost comical. Even Rainbird, who is given telekinetic powers of his own in this iteration, seems rather uninvested in the whole situation.
Rainbird is one of King’s most horrifying villains, and his obsession with Charlie in the novel feels both religious and pedophilic; there’s just a perversive sense of unease he creates. Greyeyes, who delivered bone-chilling work in True Detective Season 3, Blood Quantumand Wild Indian, really is not given much presence here. It’s a shame, because the woefully miscast George C. Scott got a lot more to work with in the ’84 version (while uncomfortably posing as an American Indian). This Firestarter tries to paint Rainbird in a sympathetic light, revealing that he was a “lab rat” for the early Lot 6 experiments and used by the government as an operative, a potentially interesting storyline that substitutes the novel’s Vietnam War history for the scientific abuses of American Natives. But like so many things in this movie, that door remains closed, and Rainbird feels more like a plot device than a character.
Charlie and Andy go on the run, but in a very low-urgency sort of way that makes the film’s budget apparent. Shot behind warehouses, featuring a lack of extras, this unpopulated world is made all the blander by its mid-aughts-CBS-procedural visuals. After resting at a farm that has its own ludicrously unnecessary subplot, Andy ends up captured but Charlie escapes, making her way to The Shop via their psychic connection. Charlie also has telekinesis and telepathy, which is very much treated as an “oh, by the way” plot device as the movie deviates further and further from the novel. There’s no real sense of how long it takes Charlie to get to The Shop — it could be the next day or weeks later. When we see Andy again, he has a beard, and the plausibility of an already implausible scenario starts to sag under the weight of it all.
Somehow, with 10 minutes left in the movie, the third act starts; Charlie meets Hollister, the antagonist of the whole story, for the first time. Charlie tries to rescue her father, sets some unconvincing Shop agents on fire, and uses yet more telepathy along with her pyrokinetic powers. This movie’s flames, it must be said, are always obviously coming from a flamethrower in the least creative way possible. Nor is there enough gore or burning to earn its R rating. But at least there’s some purple and blue neon lighting in the mostly empty cement corridors of The Shop, perhaps to try to impress some ’80s nostalgia and Stranger Things kinship upon the audience. There’s no escalation here, no giant fireballs raining down havoc and destroying helicopters and the very foundations of The Shop. The film simply burns out, despite only ever being a flicker, with a sequel-bait ending that feels like a miscalculation in every sense.
The best thing that can be said about this new iteration of Firestarter is that it at least gave us a new score by John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel A. Davies. The rest feels like a waste of a talented cast and crew that somehow, against all odds, makes the 1984 film seem like a staggering achievement in the realm of King adaptations.