When Stephen King published Firestarter in 1980 it was celebrated for its complex, character driven storyline, accolades that shouldn’t have really come as a surprise given the impressive body of work he had achieved in the 6 short years he was a published novelist; 1974’s Carrie was his first release.
With that and The Shining both being adapted into successful (and widely acclaimed) cinematic works, it only made sense that King’s bibliography be continually looked at for filmic inspiration. But, unlike those aforementioned examples, not every King product was going to be fruitful, and the original 1984 adaptation of Firestarter, despite a promising turn from a young Drew Barrymore, was more known for how much King despised its inception; “It’s the worst of the bunch!”
Given that the 80’s is now considered a decade long enough ago to be referenced as an inspiration point for film remakes, and King’s popularity continues still, thanks to his novels still earning praise and films like It and Doctor Sleep, it makes sense that one of his efforts that didn’t make the impact expected be revisited. Welcome to 2022, Firestarter.
Leaning in to more of a science-fiction-cum-supernatural element – which feels particularly on brand right now, with superhero films consistently making bank where it counts – Firestarter feels like the type of film that, had it shifted a few of its elements and characters, could be an extension of the X-Men universe, with its young protagonist – Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) – an 11-year-old girl trying to hone her pyrokinetic abilities before a shady government agency (aren’t they all?) finds her with the intent of locking her away to study her.
We learn through quite an effective opening credit sequence that Charlie’s parents, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) and Andy (Zac Efron, now in dad roles but maintaining a 6-pack in the process), were experimented on as college students, and, as a result, have their own special abilities; Andy utilises his power of psychological persuasion throughout, though the more he pushes, the blood that eventually generates from his eye sockets indicate its slowly killing him.
With no wi-fi privileges at home, Charlie is very much living off the grid under the guard of her concerned, oft-paranoid parents, both seemingly terrified that her powers will only grow stronger. Andy has taught Charlie how to defuse her ability, but it’s proving harder and harder to control as she gets older and her emotions become more and more unpredictable, leading to a tragic in-home situation that, quite literally, blows their cover and sets the family on the run once again.
Though director Keith Thomas proved his originality with his 2019 Jewish horror film The Vigil, Firestarter is very much a studio effort and thus fails to capitalise on his genre inclinations. That’s not to say this 2022 update is all bad though, it just lacks any distinct personality beyond the standard beats of fire, rinse, repeat. Being a Blumhouse production though at least allows Thomas to indulge in the benefits of an adult rating – it’s been slapped with an MA15+ classification here – and for a film that feels as if it’s going to solely present its violent content as variations on being burned, it has some fun with the gory possibilities.
Much like Barrymore proved the mainstay reasoning for the original film, Armstrong similarly delivers here, managing a performance that balances the emotion and terror in equal measure. Charlie may be doing some bad things but she’s doing them to the right people, and Scott Teems‘ script never wavers in framing Charlie as the hero of this story; it also helps that, apart from Efron, Lemmon, and a sweet John Beasley as a kindly fellow who lets the family take shelter during their travels, the rest of the narrative is laced with hateful characters that seem solely designed to be eradicated when deemed fit.
Whilst the Stephen King connection may entice some viewers, Firestarter is a more science-fiction leaning film – hell, you could even consider it an action film in some type of light manner – and is unlikely to appease those hoping for something considered remotely “scary”. That being said, King’s novel was never a straight horror piece to begin with and this shiny 2022 iteration plays accordingly.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Firestarter is now screening in Australian theatres.