Of all the Stephen King adaptations, Mark L. Lester’s “Firestarter” is hardly the most celebrated. The 1984 original, starring a young Drew Barrymore as a pyrokinetic child, has some impressive visual effects, but it’s narratively thin, thematically clunky, and marred by the offensive casting of George C. Scott as Rainbird, a Cherokee assassin.
Needless to say, remaking “Firestarter” is not, in itself, such a bad idea. There was certainly room for improvement.
One can only applaud the new filmmakers for casting indigenous actor Michael Greyeyes in the Rainbird role, but somehow the improvements stop there. The new “Firestarter” is a lot like the old “Firestarter,” if the old “Firestarter” was duller, cheaper, and devoid of almost all meaning.
Ryan Kiera Armstrong (“Black Widow”) stars as Charlie McGee, a young girl with a big secret: She can make fire with her mind. Her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon, “Velvet Buzzsaw”) also have psychic powers — he can psychically “push” people to do whatever he wants, she can move objects telekinetically — but they have to hide their secret abilities for fear of discovery from “The Shop,” a mysterious organization that gave them their powers in a clandestine drug experiment.
About a third of “Firestarter” is dedicated to Andy and Vicky trying to keep Charlie’s powers under wraps, asking their daughter to repress her emotions for fear of uncontrollably explosive outbursts, as though one doesn’t inevitably lead to the other. Sure enough, she’s starting to lose control and her parents (who send her to public school every day where she’s bullied constantly) somehow have no idea why she’s having so much difficulty keeping her anxiety in check.
When Charlie finally flips out in, let’s not say “spectacular” fashion, but in a way that ruins a school bathroom, The Shop is alerted and enlists their old test subject Rainbird to capture Charlie. Soon, Andy and Charlie are on the run. For a little bit.
Charlie trains to use her powers for a couple minutes, they stay with an old farmer for a while, and there is an extremely unpleasant sequence with a cat, but then the movie suddenly remembers that something interesting should probably happen, and the third act just suddenly slams into us like a truck. But only a truck going, like, 10mph. It’s not that intense, really.
The climax of “Firestarter” is a dreary and perfunctory extended sequence where an angry Charlie walks through vacant hallways, and occasionally people we’ve never met before but can probably assume are bad show up, and things don’t go well for them. The whole movie is a long fuse, but if you light it, it doesn’t lead to a stick of dynamite. It just leads to the other end of a fuse.
It’s such a by-the-numbers adaptation of “Firestarter,” a story which didn’t have a lot of meat on its bones in the first place, that you almost have to marvel at it. The adaptation by Scott Teems (“Halloween Kills”) moves through most of King’s plot but jettisons many of the character-driven moments that give that plot weight.
The original was, if nothing else, a horror movie about what happens when adults try to influence the minds of children for their own purposes — benevolent, malevolent or otherwise. But this new version doesn’t let any character besides Andy talk to Charlie for more than a sentence or two, so now it’s just a humdrum story about a girl who loves her parents and wants to get revenge on the people who hurt her family.
That’s motivation enough for a modest thriller, but even though Armstrong does what she can with the lead role, and Efron is doing strong work as a dad terrified for his daughter, their family is a lifeless unit. There’s no joy, there’s very little love, and even the house they’ve lived in for three years looks devoid of personality. As a matter of fact, almost all the sets are devoid of personality. The sulky cinematography from Karim Hussein (“Possessor”) looks like it was shot entirely at the un-magic hour. The whole movie looks empty and depressed.
It’s fair to say that this new “Firestarter” exists in an entirely different context than the original. Stories like this are now usually mined for excitement instead of scares, and they generally climax with a character like Charlie getting invited into a larger interconnected world of fantasy and wonder. This new “Firestarter,” from director Keith Thomas (“The Vigil”), has no interest in juxtaposing King’s vision of super-powered children with those of contemporary blockbusters — aside from one clunky line of dialogue where the evil Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) says Charlie is a “real-life superhero,” like it’s just occurred to her — nor does the film seem interested in exploring the darker side of power fantasies. Or in exploring anything else, really.
The whole film just takes the skeleton of “Firestarter” and throws it up on the screen, never mind the nerves, never mind the brains, never mind the heart. Characters like Rainbird are reduced to empty antagonists, with only vague hints at their hidden depths. Hollister’s role is almost entirely relegated to the limp finale and an extended conversation with a remorseful scientist played by Kurtwood Smith, whose role has so many portentous lines of dialogue and so little to do with the plot that one seriously wonders if the scene was added in post-production to add a faint patina of gravitas, or at least to pad the flimsy runtime.
The best one can probably say for the new “Firestarter” is that it gives John Carpenter, who almost directed the original (before “The Thing” flopped in theaters), an opportunity to write a score for the film he never made. (Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies are credited as his co-composers.) It’s a decent score, and it sure sounds like an old-school John Carpenter riff, but it’s not so mind-blowingly amazing that it justifies the existence of the inert remake underneath it. It just happens to be one of the few burning embers in this pile of ashes.
“Firestarter” opens in US theaters and on Peacock May 13.