New Firestarter Fails to Combust in Tepid Update of King’s Daddy-Daughter Scorcher

A pointless new Firestarter the makes its 1984 predecessor (which wasn’t one of the better movie adaptations of a Stephen King novel) look artful in comparison.

5 mins read

Probably the less said about the pointless new Firestarter the better, a movie that makes its 1984 predecessor (which wasn’t one of the better movie adaptations of a Stephen King novel) look positively artful in comparison. At least the original had George C. Scott classing up the source material’s minor thrills in its tale of a gifted adolescent with anger management issues—namely, her ability to “create a nuclear explosion simply with the force of her mind” at anyone who gets in the way of her anxiety. This one has no such estimable compensations and should quickly disappear into bad remake obscurity.

Directed by Keith Thomas (The Vigil) from a screenplay by Scott Teems (Halloween Kills) with a score by John Carpenter doing service as the film’s main production pedigree, the new version a shapeless, monotonous retread that brings nothing new to the premise and is simply content to coast on the conceptual novelty of its heroine’s power to hurl fireballs, this time gussied up with digital effects, in lieu of pacing, suspense or compelling characters.

This time, a college medical experiment on future parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) McGee produces psychic abilities and those are inherited, to a degree, by their young daughter, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who also develops the ability to produced scorched earth flames with her mind. You really don’t want to make her angry, and the early part of the film flirts with how parents and child might navigate such a dilemma. Perhaps a much better film would have focused on keeping such abilities in check during the mood swings of puberty and coming of age.

But Firestarter’s rudimentary plot—the researchers who meddled with mom and dad (who now cries very poorly rendered, CGI tears of blood) are on the hunt for their daughter, and expectedly wish to kidnap her to “study” her “real life superhero” talents. The majority of the film finds dad and daughter on the run from the facility’s head (Gloria Ruben) who dispatches a mysterious mercenary henchman (Michael Greyeyes) to do the dirty work of bringing the girl back to the secret research lab (which would have been far better served in the hands of a director like David Cronenberg).

And that is all that is going on here, stretched out to a long 90 minutes during which the chase lacks thrills and actors fail to generate much heat. The typically dependable Efron, handsome as always, invests what emotion he can in the limp material but is given little to play other than parental desperation.  Armstrong, an experienced child actress, is required to merely express frustration with her gifts and launch them on cue. Lemmon’s concerned mom is so one-dimensional that we feel nothing when she leaves the film. Reuben gets one note to play and does so serviceably. When you put these lackluster characters together there is simply nothing to care about.

On a technical level the dim, desaturated and often gray palette of the set-up does the movie no favors though the visual design pops to life a bit with supersaturated blue interiors in the climactic showdown, which features a moment between dad and daughter that I simply didn’t believe. When the film’s calling card is its fire effects its baffling how small-scale and inconsequential they feel. Where are the infernal thrills? The special effects are so underwhelming as to barely register.

Much has been made of John Carpenter’s synth score, which will not go down as one of his best. The entire Blumhouse production feels as if it cut corners to come in far under budget, giving the movie a sheen akin to one of those direct-to-video outings tailored for late night 80s cable rotation.  

1 ½ stars—the film does not deserve them but Efron’s earnestness merits something.

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