Review: 'Firestarter' Never Ignites

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday May 16, 2022

'Firestarter'
'Firestarter'  (Source:Universal)

It can be cathartic to watch films where a woman or girl embraces her power and rage amidst a world plagued by patriarchy, homophobia, and racism. A girl causing conflagrations — often a response to heightened emotions — pursued by a shadowy government agency wanting to control and weaponize her feels allegorical to today's oppressive political climate.

Film adaptations of Stephen King's novels remain hit or miss. There are the successes, including "The Shawshank Redemption," "It," "Misery," "Dolores Claiborne," and "Stand by Me." Some adaptations have proven difficult to adapt from page to screen.

Based on Stephen King's 1980 novel, the original 1984 "Firestarter," starring Drew Barrymore, suffered from bad acting and poorly-written dialogue. Unfortunately, the 2022 sci-fi horror remake — directed by Keith Thomas (whose wonderful horror film "The Vigil" is a fascinating exploration of trauma) with a screenplay written by Scott Teems — doesn't fare much better.

In Stephen King's first novel, "Carrie," a teen girl comes into power after her first period. In "Firestarter," 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) possesses powers of pyrokinesis due to her telepathic father, Andy (Zac Efron), and telekinetic mother, Vickie (Sydney Lemmon). They gained their powers due to scientific experiments of a drug in college, conveyed in VHS-style flashbacks during the opening credits.

Andy uses telepathy to make money, which causes him to fall ill and his eyes to bleed. Vickie refuses to use her telekinesis. The family frequently moves to hide from the Shop, the government organization that tested on them and wants to abduct Charlie.

Charlie's powers emerge when she's anxious or afraid. Vickie asserts they should train Charlie in her pyrokinesis, while Andy feels she should suppress her powers and stifle her emotions (strangely reminiscent of Elsa in "Frozen"). Each parent believes their perspective will protect their daughter.

When bullied in school, Charlie tries to use grounding techniques to self-soothe. Evoking a trauma allegory could have been a compelling direction for the film to take, but it squanders that opportunity.

Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes, excellent in "Blood Quantum" and "Rutherford Falls"), a Native American assassin with powers bestowed by the Shop, ruthlessly searches for Charlie. Andy tells Charlie that the Shop will study her; Charlie compares herself to a dissected frog in biology class.

"Firestarter" doesn't do anything innovative or groundbreaking to warrant a remake. I's a dull film hat suffers from bad writing and direction. (One example of horrendously trite dialogue includes Charlie saying, "Liar, liar, pants on fire," before emitting an explosive fireball.) However, it rightfully casts Indigenous actor Michael Greyeyes as Rainbird, previously portrayed in the 1984 film by George C. Scott, and Gloria Reuben plays villainous Captain Hollister, the head of the Shop, originally written as a man.

Lacking development and nuance, the characters don't feel like real people, but rather plot devices. Unfortunately, Ryan Kiera Armstrong gives a terribly wooden and banal performance as Charlie. Yet, she emotes well in one scene, lamenting that she's "a monster." Michael Greyeyes is always a fantastic actor; his performance imbues Rainbird with inner tortured turmoil. Yet, his performance can't save the film.

Ugly and cheap-looking visual effects (especially Charlie's pyrokinesis), murky lighting, and a blah color palette (aside from the climax, which is filled with vibrant colors evoking shades of fire) hinder the film. Disturbing images — a cat incinerated after scratching Charlie, Charlie engulfed in flames as a baby — don't really add anything. It's particularly surprising, considering director of photography Karim Hussain's visually striking cinematography in Brandon Cronenberg's horror film "Possessor."

The score contains distinctive, appealing pops of electronica, trademarks of John Carpenter, who composed the score along with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.

Charlie assures her dad she will only harm "bad people." Andy warns that hurting people spurs painful consequences, which "you don't come back from." Andy's reductionist advice centers the harmer's guilt and remorse, not the victim, ultimately ignoring true empathy and compassion.

It's surprising to me that the same filmmaker who crafted a compelling, eerie horror film like "The Vigil" has made such a boring film. It frustrates with tedium, wasting its fascinating premise. Captain Hollister reverentially refers to Charlie as "a superhero." That should resonate; I should yearn to see Charlie enact vengeance and right systemic wrongs. But even when reaching its climactic showdown, the film feels hollow and numb; I didn't care what happened. "Firestarter" can't ignite.

"Firestarter" opens in theaters and streams on Peacock on Friday, May 13, 2022.