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‘Firestarter’ Review: Newest Stephen King adaptation barely creates a spark

Stephen King's 1980 novel about a girl cursed with pyrotechnic abilities is adapted by a team eager to revise and failing to justify themselves.
Credit: Universal

TEXAS, USA — There is value, maybe even the redemptive kind, in a movie that knows what it is. Hardcore genre fans understand this, and 1984’s “Firestarter” understands it too. The many faults of director Mark L. Lester’s film notwithstanding, its insistence on dryness at the very least provides kindling for embers of kitschy suspense to glow. 

Nothing about the newest adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel – about a desperate father on the run with his telekinetic, fire-starting daughter – is particularly suspenseful, nor does very much about it glow like a movie that doesn’t feel like a shrug. It certainly could use some good old-fashioned kitschiness, that’s for sure, and when it comes to the question of whether it at least knows what it is, well… given that what it is is choked up on the fumes of what it perceives as gravitas, we don’t have much reason to be confident. 

Director Keith Thomas helmed the movie, working off a script by Scott Teems. While they might have concerned themselves with crafting believable dialogue or a kernel of playfulness, they’re instead preoccupied with shepherding some major revisions to the story. This iteration opens on a more crestfallen note, patiently biding its time in the fantasy of suburban bliss before downbeat dad Andy McGee (Zac Efron, playing it uncomfortably straight) and young Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) really start to feel the heat of government footsoldiers on their tale. She possesses the ability to wreak nuclear bomb-level devastation, “Firestarter” 2022 tells us, in an ominous touch lifted almost verbatim from “Firestarter” 1984. What either film gets out of teasing a spectacle neither actually delivers, I’m not sure, but at least in pint-sized Drew Barrymore’s shoes Charlie hews closer to the wrecking-ball unpredictability that makes you remember every child is already a nuclear device, murderous or otherwise. Armstrong’s take doesn’t leave much of any impression. 

Is Charlie’s ability to start fires with her mind a gift or a curse? Neither King’s novel nor the 1984 movie are confused on that point, not when the youngster has lost out on any semblance of a social life on account of being a walking fire hazard. That Teems’ screenplay brings “Just kidding…unless?” energy to the question with repeated insistences that “You are very special” might be more in line with the deeper psychological profiles mandated by contemporary horror, but it’s also one of the surest signs that this “Firestarter” doesn’t have much of a grasp on its tone to begin with. Not even the best movie about tykes reckoning with volatile abilities to come out this week, “Firestarter” is instead a 2022 standout for unintentional comedy, dramatic anonymity and near-barren atmosphere (“Possessor” cinematographer Karim Hussain shows off some haunted-house visual flair in the final act, so that’s something). 

What the movie desperately needs a dose of self-awareness, and a detox from the cheap sentimentality better suited for movies about kids that kids will actually be in the audience for (in reality the movie isn’t all that scary, but outright terror is beside the source material’s point, so we won’t hold that against Thomas too much). There’s also a substantial reworking of the mercenary character Rainbird (here played by the reliable Michael Greyeyes) that puts minor oomph in the story as one about outsiders and exiles, but the concept exudes more spark than the execution. 

Elsewhere, the clenched-jaw grit Thomas aspires to puts his “Firestarter” at risk of popping a vein; then again, the bloodletting would prove invaluable for a movie that dozes through its stale climactic showdown. A sense of cataclysm would have been appreciated. So might a touch of urgency or intention. 

"Firestarter" is rated R for violent content. It's now in theaters and streaming on Peacock. Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes. 

Starring: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Michael Greyeyes.

Directed by Keith Thomas, written by Scott Teems from the novel by Stephen King. 

2022

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