Published in 1980, Stephen King’s Firestarter has always been one of the author’s more emotionally immediate novels: A telepathic father tries to protect his young daughter, who can set things aflame with her mind, while they’re both on the run from the Feds. A simple, suspenseful, and moving premise. But the story is filled with booby traps when it comes to adapting it for the screen. People staring intensely at each other can only take you so far, streamlining King’s bizarre narrative detours and oddball characters often leads to tonal chaos, and centering everything on a very young child (and thus a very young actor) can be tough. The ruthlessly faithful 1984 Mark L. Lester film, with Drew Barrymore and David Keith being chased by Martin Sheen and a deliriously over-the-top George C. Scott, was certainly uneven; still, it at least delivered on the spectacular pyrotechnics promised by that title. That not-so-beloved film is practically North by Northwest when compared with this most recent Blumhouse adaptation (now in theaters and streaming on Peacock), which is so weirdly inert and visually drab it at times feels like a hostage video.
The hostage in this case would be Zac Efron, who not only looks as if he doesn’t want to be there but also acts as though nobody told him he was starring in an adaptation of Firestarter. He plays Andy McGee, father to the pyrokinetically gifted 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). While King’s story largely focuses on Andy and Charlie’s flight from a seemingly endless army of Feds, Keith Thomas’s film spends more time on the McGees’ home life, with Charlie struggling to control her flame-inducing rage and Andy and his wife, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), disagreeing over how best to help her: Should the girl keep all her anger bottled in, or should she learn how to channel it?
That might have been an interesting setup in a world where the actors were actually given something to do. Here, they seem to have been forbidden from emoting. Perhaps that’s intentional, particularly in Efron’s case, given that Andy is all in favor of Charlie repressing her feelings. But for this actor, the choice is fatal. Efron has never quite had the gift of an inner life beyond that placidly beautiful face of his, and when he holds back his emotions, it comes off as awkward inertia. Blood seeps from Andy’s eyes whenever he uses his powers, but Efron’s performance is so passive, so noncommittal, that if you told me nobody had informed him his character would be bleeding from the eyes, I’d believe you. It all feels like an afterthought.
Save for Armstrong, who glowers well and looks reasonably scary with her hair swirling and flames exploding around her, the rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. As John Rainbird, a Native American operative tasked with hunting down Charlie, Michael Greyeyes has been given arguably even less to do than Efron. In King’s novel, Rainbird is a scarred, perverted, scheming psycho with a bizarre death wish. Lester’s film cast Scott in the role, which now feels dodgy in all sorts of ways, but at least he got to chew hectares of scenery. It’s understandable that the filmmakers might have wanted to make modifications to such a potentially troubling and dated character, but by simply turning Rainbird into a quiet hunter-mystic, they’ve made him an offensive cliché of a different sort. Gloria Reuben, meanwhile, plays the official ordering the manhunt, and she’s been sent in a completely different direction: She overacts wildly, but her character has so little screen time and does so little of narrative consequence that the effect is jarring.
Perhaps what’s most dispiriting about this Firestarter is how visually impoverished it is. By sidelining (though not doing away entirely with) the chase narrative and focusing instead on Charlie’s life at home and at her curiously empty school, the film has been drained of surprise and possibility. Was it a budget thing? We know Blumhouse likes to keep costs low so as to maximize profit off these smaller releases, which is a solid business model, but not when it completely undercuts the movie. I can’t believe I have to say this, but what makes the idea of Firestarter interesting is the notion that someone can, you know, start fires with their mind. And in order for that idea to work, we have to see them out in the real world among all those ordinary humans who, you know, can’t start fires with their minds. Save for a couple of scenes, there’s so little of that in Firestarter — the clash between these characters’ supernatural powers and the world at large — that to call the film a wasted opportunity doesn’t quite do justice to what an abject failure it is.
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