Movies about killer kids, whether they be mere wackadoos or tykes with full-blown special abilities, will always be a reliable subgenre. The juxtaposition of children committing acts of violence and horror simply hits on a visceral level no matter how many times we train our brains to accept it. A new film opening this weekend touches on the subject with a story about a child struggling to control the destructive force within them, and it is a haunting, startling, and quietly thrilling watch. It’s called The Innocents (my review) and is absolutely worth seeking out. Oh, and a new adaptation of Stephen King‘s Firestarter has also been released.
Andy McGee (Zac Efron) wakes from a nightmare involving his infant daughter and a burning crib to discover his now preteen daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) has had a bad dream too. They both seem to know that something terrible is heading their way, and it’s not long before they’re proven right. A shadowy government organization has been hunting for them ever since Andy and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), both capable of psychic shenanigans, took part in drug experiments before having a child together. Young Charlie inherited both of their abilities but also has her own — she’s a pyrokinetic wunderkind. Soon Vicky is dead, Andy and Charlie are on the run, and an assassin with powers of his own is hot on their trail.
King’s Firestarter is arguably one of his mid-tier novels as its spark is sporadic amid too much time spent in flashbacks and dry “Shop” talk. The feature adaptation in 1984 isn’t any better, but it still manages to find some highlights in its pyrotechnics and casting choices. Forty-two years later King’s creation is back on the big screen, but 2022’s Firestarter is a soggy dud from its lackluster beginning to its dumb as hell conclusion.
Director Keith Thomas (The Vigil, 2019) and writer Scott Teems (Halloween Kills, 2021) have crafted a real mediocrity here with bland, flat visuals and a narrative that somehow feels both rushed and drawn out to the point of boredom. An attempt at mixing things up a little is to be applauded, but the results negate that temporary high as those changes appear to be more haphazard than inspired.
More time with Vicky early on allows more from the character than past flashbacks did, and it offers a glimpse into the dynamic that shapes Charlie as she tries to convince Andy that they should be training the girl not hiding her away. Unfortunately, it adds little to the conversation aside from a post-mortem “I told you so!” and more screen time for Lemmon. Even less successful is the blink and you’ll miss it introduction of Kurtwood Smith as Dr. Joseph Wanless — think he’s important in the slightest? Think again.
And then there’s the Native American assassin, Rainbird. George C. Scott plays the character in 1984’s Firestarter, but while that was a wildly insensitive choice the silver lining is an entertainingly demented performance from Scott. The great Michael Greyeyes takes the role here, but Teems’ script has neutered the character’s most interesting traits including his murderous obsessions and twisted affection for Charlie. Now Rainbird has psychic powers too, and sure, he kills Charlie’s mom, but maybe he’s not so bad? Greyeyes does good work, but the script has no idea what to do with the character, and it shows right up to its laughable final frames.
Both the novel and the earlier film spend the bulk of their time with Andy and Charlie on the run, and it gives heart to a story balanced out by the sizzle arising from the Charlie/Rainbird storyline. The new Firestarter neglects both to its peril leaving a dull, hollow shell of a film in its wake. Both Efron and Armstrong are fine, but the palpable feelings of love and fear present in the novel (and in David Keith’s and Drew Barrymore’s 1984 performances) are sadly absent. In their place we get a scene of Charlie burning a cat alive because it scratched her followed by a lesson on great power and responsibility.
It’s possible a denser, longer version of the new Firestarter exists that fleshes out characters like Wanless and Rainbird and gives more weight and time to Charlie’s journey, but that’s not the version we’ve been given. This is a cheap, unattractive slog that can’t create and maintain a single interesting element. Fire stunts are minimal as CG flames (and CG blood pouring from Efron’s eyes) take precedence. It almost seems as if the film is teasing a whole new angle here — that Charlie isn’t the underdog hero and is instead maybe on her way to becoming a monster — but it just can’t commit to the ideas it raises.
Ultimately, the new Firestarter is the kind of bad movie that isn’t even fun in its ineptitude. It’s dull, ugly, shortchanges the various character dynamics, and can’t even end on a high. Of course, it’s not a complete waste as the film’s score by John Carpenter (alongside Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies) bodes well for more music from the master. Skip the film, buy the soundtrack, and we’ll at least get more Carpenter scores on other filmmakers’ movies. That’s the only win you’ll find here.