There’s a lot to talk about with the latest Stephen King adaptation. There’s also somehow not much to say.
When the 1984 adaptation of the novel was released it pretty much got shat on. Martin Sheen returned as a villain (he previously had played a version of Donald Trump in Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, a version in an era that actually thought Trump hiding from a terrorist behind a white, Christian, Midwestern baby would derail his followers’ faith in him) to pretty much no fanfare. Drew Barrymore turned in a pretty solid kid performance and got to participate in some gnarly kills at the end, but that’s pretty much it. John Carpenter was supposed to direct it, but when The Thing wasn’t successful initially (it’s rad, and people that hated it were wrong) he was replaced. He’s returned to score the latest version of this story, making him not only a good sport but pretty much the coolest dude.
How’s the movie overall? Well, that’s more complicated.
Firestarter tells the story of Charlene “Charlie” McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a young woman borne with an uncontrollable ability to start fires by getting emotional. Her psychic parents, Andy (Zac Effron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), got telepathic abilities from an experiment they participated in during their college years. Taking a hallucinagenic drug for a study, they were bestowed with powers that they’ve used to stay hidden ever since they went on the run. When the government agency, nicknamed “The Shop,” sends assassin John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) after the family, they go on the run and are forced to teach Charlie how to harness her powers to survive.
It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story, one of the bonds between a father and a daughter and featuring the supernatural children that make up a plethora of Stephen King characters. The issue with this remake (directed by…uh…*checks notes*…Keith Thomas) is that it can’t provide anything truly special or new to this idea. There is plenty of room to explore what coming of age and the onset of adolescence could mean to a young pyrokinetic girl, but the film instead simply delivers moment after moment with no hesitation to dwell on anything. Its wonderful first chunk, involving the whole family together as they hide, is perhaps the best of the entire experience. I love watching Effron work, having seen him grow from teen heartthrob to zaddy over the last decade, and his work in this film is some of the best of his career. Armstrong turns in one of the better kid performances we’ve seen this side of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, a notoriously tricky needle to thread and one that has only been pulled off this well a handful of times. It’s a shame that the film around them isn’t more of a standout in a world where we view Stephen King as a franchise unto himself.
We really should examine what works because there’s quite a lot of it. Effron and Armstrong are delivering wonderful performances, sincere and frightening without being over the top. Kurtwood Smith shows up for a whopping two minutes to ham it up and seems to have fully understood the assignment. Some sections of the film feel lived-in as a world we can believe, sadly doing real damage to later scenes in nondescript concrete buildings that remind one more of the budget of Stranger Things first season than its latest. I’m a fan of cheesy dialogue in certain circumstances and the final segment of this film gives me more than I could handle. It’s such a blast to watch as Charlie melts bullets in midair, burns skulls, melts people, and stalks through a government lab just slaughtering her way through everyone. These great things are wrapped in a film that is so aggressively “okay” that it brings them down even as they’re elevating the film beyond its reach.
We did get one incredible win – John Carpenter. In a fun twist, he’s now scoring a version of the film he was fired from nearly forty years prior. It’s an absolute banger of an album, one that feels heartfelt and meaningful while also adding his guitar shred and synth screams (one track is titled “Corporate Menace,” a move it seems he’s been waiting for his whole career to make). The final track is a delightful sendoff to a film that thankfully knew not to overstay his welcome.
Most of you are going to hate this. It’s got a lot of fun moments, but it’s somehow both too mean and not mean enough. It’ll be forgotten quickly by many (though there are going to be those thinking about Effron in this role during some private moments for years to come), but mostly it’s a mildly entertaining little flick with some stellar aspects that feels like it clawed its way right out of the early 80s.
Firestarter is currently in theatres and streaming on Peacock.