Eleven-year-old Charlene “Charlie” McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the apple of her parents’ eyes. Her father Andy (Zac Efron) and her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) met in college. Both were subjects of experiments in ESP and telekinesis. They were also given an experimental drug from a secret defense company called DSI. It enhanced their abilities and allowed them to pass it on to their Charlie. Charlie can generate and transmit high levels of heat and fire without burning herself. The McGee family stays low key and off the grid as possible to avoid DSI from finding them and continuing experiments on Charlie or worse, turning her into a weapon. When Charlie loses control at school one day, the director of DSI, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) sends a DSI’s “fixer,” John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to capture the family, or at least Charlie, and bring them back to the facility. Rainbird kills Vicky and eventually runs down Andy and Charlie, but Charlie gets away. Left on her own, Charlie begins to hone her abilities and plans to free her father and exact revenge on everyone involved in killing her mother.
Stephen King’s 1980 novel “Firestarter” was first adapted for the screen in 1984 starring David Keith as Andy, Drew Barrymore as Charlie, Heather Locklear as Vicky, and, for some reason, George C. Scott as the Native American Rainbird. A TV miniseries about a grown-up Charlie cast the English actor Malcolm McDowell as Rainbird. At least in this version, a Native American actor was cast as a Native American. Sadly, that’s about the only thing that was done correctly as this version of “Firestarter” is a dull slog.
Having watched the film in a theater (you can also stream it on Peacock), I was surprised about how dead it looks. A movie about a pyrokinetic girl and her psychically gifted parents should pop off the screen and fill the audience with wonder. Pop and wonder are missing from this adaption of King’s eighth published book.
A few scenes have some energy to them. When we see Andy use his abilities as a “life coach” helping people quit smoking, the sound of him popping his neck as he performs what he calls a “push” is startling. He enters people’s minds and rearranges their thoughts to make them do what he wants. Afterwards, Andy’s eyes bleed and we see his “gift” takes a physical toll. It’s an intriguing idea that is reduced to a sideshow carnival act by a script that feels like it’s in a hurry to get somewhere without knowing where to go. The first time we see Charlie shoot fire by blowing up a school restroom suggests some real fireworks to come. However, only a few times is what the child does impressive. One expression of her power comes at the expense of a cat that scratches her. It gives Andy the chance to explain that her powers can kill innocent people, even if she doesn’t mean to. However, the scene comes off as a cold and cruel example of what she can do as the cat isn’t killed with the first blast. It is suffering until Charlie finishes the job at her father’s direction. I know the cat they show burned is animatronic and didn’t feel a thing, but this scene was unnecessary given what had come before.
If you enjoy gore in your sci-fi/horror movies, “Firestarter” has a fair bit of it. The burned flesh effects are very gross and look realistic. There are at least three scenes featuring the victims of Charlie’s powers. All other fire effects are done on bigger scales with buildings burning or blowing up. Even this doesn’t manage to instill any excitement as it is just fire for fire’s sake. There’s no meaning attached to most of the big effects. They look to have been added to use up the gasoline and propane budget.
“Firestarter” is rated R for violent content. There are several shootings that lead to death or painful injury. Some of the shootings are head shots. We see the aftermath of Charlie’s abilities on several people. Some show blistered and oozing skin while others are blackened corpses. The most troubling for me was the cat. Foul language is scattered but consists mostly of the f-word.
Since the success of “IT: Chapter 1,” several of Stephen King’s novels and stories are getting TV or big screen treatments. Bryan Fuller is working on a new version of “Christine,” and “Salem’s Lot” along with a “Pet Semetary” prequel are in various stages of development. I’m hopeful for these and any other projects working to bring King’s stories to the big or small screen. I’m also hopeful they are better than this lackluster version of “Firestarter.” If you want to see a better attempt at the story, watch the 1984 film or read the book and let the images dance around in your head. While it isn’t unwatchable, the new “Firestarter” ever takes alight.
“Firestarter” gets two stars out of five.
Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.
Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.