Though it's blessed by an excellent score from John Carpenter, this superpowered-kid retread rarely rises above forgettable
Of all the recent Stephen King adaptations, remakes, and legacy sequels, not many make more sense on paper than redoing Firestarter. The cheesy first go from the ‘80s is remembered but not so well-loved that anyone will call sacrilege on a remake, is ripe for an update both in its special effects and its offensive casting, and is perhaps the King story that best suits today’s superhero-obsessed cinematic landscape. It’s a safe but also deeply uninspired bet that results in a generic-feeling sci-fi adventure, not terrible, yet utterly forgettable all the same.
Keeping the bones of the story the same whilst bringing it into the 2020s, Keith Thomas’s remake introduces us to the McGee family, trying to balance giving daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) a normal-ish life with staying off the grid – this time out this means no mobile phones or wi-fi in the house. See, Charlie can start blazing fires with her mind, but she hasn’t learnt to control her power, so dad Andy (Zac Efron) and mum Vicky (Sidney Lemmon) have to hide Charlie from the shady government organisation that wants to capture and weaponise her.
Andy and Vicky have psychic powers of their own, and it’s not long before an emotionally charged flare-up of the family’s abilities has the government back on their trail, led by similarly-powered Native assassin Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes). Even as the McGees flee across the country, Firestarter never conjures much urgency with a plot that simply goes through the motions, lacking much in the way of tension or exciting set-pieces. Outside of some violence against cats, there’s little to raise the pulse here, though the (very welcome) use of genuine squibs in the shootout scenes does really help to ground what would otherwise be some silly action.
In fact, there are some decent practical effects across the whole film in a way that hearkens back to some of the squishier and slimier horrors of the ‘80s, and it’s in its most liberal borrowing from this decade that this Firestarter is at its best, from some moments of gnarly violence to the excellent score. In a real coup, Firestarter has landed the legendary John Carpenter on the soundtrack and his electronic tracks are easily the best thing about the film, elevating any scene they’re used in.
It’s just a pity that Firestarter’s more earnest drama scenes have to get in the way of the schlock so often. Outside of a fun cameo from Kurtwood Smith as a cynical retired agent, the cast are middling across the board, and the early scenes at Charlie’s school are just awful, packed with the dullest and most cliched bullying scenes you could imagine. Part of this is clearly down to COVID restrictions during production – every location, including the school, feels distractingly empty – but lazy writing is just as much to blame, the dialogue never convincing as actually spoken by kids.
There are just too many moments like this in Firestarter, where the human relationships feel harder to buy into than the shadowy psychic conspiracies. The best recent King-adjacent stories, like 2017’s It and Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, managed to absorb you deeply into their spooky but lived-in worlds; this new Firestarter is mostly just background noise.
Firestarter is released in UK cinemas from 13 May.Where to watch