Stephen King adaptations are notoriously hit or miss. While some of them, like Carrie and The Shining, are all-time horror classics, others are bottom-of-the-barrel genre rubbish. You never know what you’re going to get with these films, so I went into Firestarter with a mix of trepidation and hopefulness. The trailer was awesome, and I wanted the movie to be just as good, but I knew there were no guarantees.
Firestarter was directed by Keith Thomas, and it stars Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Michael Greyeyes, and Gloria Reuben. It’s about a family named the McGees, and they all have psychic powers. The father and mother were given their powers by a secret government organization, and their daughter Charlie was born with pyrokinetic abilities. The family tries to keep these powers under wraps, but when Charlie accidentally lets the cat out of the bag, she and her family have to go on the run as the government organization that gave them their abilities tries to kidnap her.
Before I get into my thoughts on Firestarter, I want to make something clear. I’m not going to compare this film to the book or the original movie. The way I see it, when filmmakers adapt books or remake films, their primary job isn’t to recreate the source material. Rather, it’s to use that source material to make the best movie they can, and sometimes that requires changing the story. So, whether or not this version stays true to the novel, or the previous adaptation is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is whether the film works on its own terms, and that’s all I’m going to be writing about here.
With that out of the way, let’s get to my thoughts on the movie. Like I said before, I was cautiously optimistic going into it, and unfortunately, my caution was right on the mark. While Firestarter isn’t terrible, it’s not particularly good either. Granted, there are some good things about it, but it has one big flaw that just ruined the entire thing for me: it didn’t make me care about the characters.
See, throughout the entire film, there’s not much to them other than what we learn from the premise: Charlie and her parents have psychic abilities, and a shady government organization wants to kidnap her. That’s literally all there is to these people, both the good guys and the bad guys, so they’re all very flat and one-dimensional.
That made it super difficult for me to forge any sort of genuine connection with the characters, so once the story really got going, I just didn’t care what happened to them. I never became emotionally invested in Charlie, her family, or the people chasing them, so at best, the whole thing felt like little more than visual noise.
To be sure, this isn’t a knock on the performances in Firestarter. In fact, I thought they were quite good. In particular, there were two that really caught my attention. First, Zac Efron did an awesome job playing Charlie’s father Andy. Before this movie, I don’t think I had ever seen him in anything other than the High School Musical films, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from him, but I was very pleasantly surprised. He does a great job of hitting all the emotional beats the role requires from him, so I totally believed that he was Andy McGee rather than Zac Efron.
Secondly, Ryan Kiera Armstrong was excellent as Charlie. Her character displays a wide range of emotions throughout the movie, and she nails every one of them. She goes back and forth between menacing, happy, scared, and sad, and she does it without even breaking a sweat. I think she has a bright future ahead of her, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again in at least a few more genre films.
But those excellent performances weren’t enough to save the characters in Firestarter. Efron, Armstrong, and the rest of the cast did their best to elevate the material they were given, but that material just wasn’t all that interesting. And like I said before, that killed the film for me. By the time the action picked up, I had already checked out, so nothing that happened in this movie had any real emotional impact on me.
On top of that, I also had two other big issues with this film. First, some of the CGI was pretty weak. In particular, I really didn’t buy it when Charlie used her pyrokinetic powers towards the end of the story. It looked like the filmmakers were using outdated technology, so it took me out of the movie a bit.
Secondly, and more egregiously, Firestarter ends with a bunch of very odd narrative choices. I can’t go into any specifics without spoiling the film, so I’m going to be very vague here. First, Charlie’s father makes a huge decision that’s completely out of character for him, and then there’s a super cool sequence where Charlie goes all out and shows just how dangerous she really is. However, this sequence only lasts about four minutes or so, and when it’s done, the story takes another really head-scratching turn. Then, after a few more minutes, the movie kind of just ends. It’s a pretty jarring finale that doesn’t wrap things up well at all, so when the credits began to roll, I was very unsatisfied.
So, all in all, if you’re looking for some good new horror to watch this weekend, I’m sad to say that Firestarter isn’t it. While the film has a few redeeming qualities, like the acting and the cool four-minute sequence near the end, they’re not nearly enough to salvage it. It just did a really bad job of making me care about the characters, and that kept the story from resonating with me in any meaningful way.
Firestarter is playing in theaters and on Peacock right now.