Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Simultaneous theatrical and streaming release on Peacock
This misguided adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel “Firestarter” comes to us from the pen of talented screenwriter Scott Teems (see the upcoming “The Exorcist” remake and the excellent 2009 film “That Evening Sun”). While there are fans of the previous attempt to translate this King adventure, “Firestarter (1984)” remains of interest only as a nostalgic kick, which gave us a young Drew Barrymore in the fiery lead.
Without the comic goofiness that helped propel the 1980s version (George C. Scott sporting an eyepatch and ponytail), this flat, overly sober update has virtually no energy. What’s frustrating is that King’s book should be easily adaptable. It’s a kind of broader, more palatable “Carrie.” But in the hands of director Keith Thomas (see 2019’s “The Vigil”), this COVID-hampered production feels much smaller and more manipulated than its relatively cheesier predecessor.
In “Firestarter (2022),” Zac Efron is Andy McGee, a role previously played by David Keith. Andy is the ill-fated father of Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), the little girl able to start fires with her mind. The two go on the run from shadowy government forces after their hidden telekinetic abilities are revealed. They are pursued by the ruthless Captain Hollister (“ER” alum Gloria Reuben) and the troubled hitman/enforcer Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes).
While Teems and Thomas retain the essential King story elements, their changes to accommodate bringing the narrative into the modern internet/smartphone era ring hollow. King’s more provocative plot points are reduced to flashbacks and a glossy title sequence that introduces us to the government experiments that gave the McGees their powers.
The eternally youthful Efron manages to look older and somewhat parental, but he’s expected to carry the emotional center of the father-daughter relationship. Like almost everything in this movie, nothing feels genuine or authentic.
The potentially fun and scary Rainbird character barely resonates. In the book, he was an enigmatic war veteran turned super killer for a government organization known as “The Shop.” Instead of leaning into his quirkier traits (he has a crazy shoe fetish, for example), this version makes him a kind of supernatural equal to Charlie. This change from the source material removes the edgier characteristics that made Rainbird fascinating and menacing.
Portions of Teems’ screenplay are influenced by King’s book, like Kurtwood Smith playing the mentally imbalanced Dr. Joseph Wanless or John Beasley as the kind Irv Manders (played by Art Carney in the 1984 film). But these characters seem like afterthoughts that have little connection to anything in this thankfully short film.
For a movie about a little girl who can start fires and possibly burn the entire planet, “Firestarter (2022)” lacks all emotional warmth. Disparate and fractured narrative threads leave viewers out in the cold about the ambitions and identities of any of the players involved. Without context and development, it’s hard to care about Charlie and her attempts to save her father.
To be fair, it’s evident that this movie was made on a limited budget and had to follow COVID-19 restrictions. And it’s the kind of project that is ideally suited for a streamer like Peacock, where a limited series might have had more coherence. But after films like “It” and Mike Flanagan’s impressive “The Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep” helped to usher in a new, elevated crop of King endeavors, “Firestarter (2022)” is an undeniable step backward.