REVIEW: Firestarter [2022]

Rating: 4 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 94 minutes
    Release Date: May 13th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Keith Thomas
    Writer(s): Scott Teems / Stephen King (novel)

When you see her, you will understand.

My initial impulse upon rewatching the original movie was to read the novel assuming something got lost in translation to make it feel so boring on-screen. Now that I’ve seen director Keith Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems‘ latest adaptation of Stephen King‘s Firestarter, however, I’m beginning to wonder whether the source material is just dull. Because a lot has changed this go-round. The fact there’s only thirty minutes left by the time Andy (Zac Efron) and Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) make it to potential sanctuary courtesy of a kindly older gentlemen (John Beasley‘s Ivr Manders) should prove as much since the bulk of Mark L. Lester‘s film took place afterwards. Some changes are welcome (namely concerning Michael Greyeyes‘ Rainbird), but none inject any life to the narrative.

If anything, the opposite proves true. Teems has seemingly stripped everything down to transform what should be an emotionally draining psychological thriller into a run-of-the-mill actioner where nuance is replaced by superficial revenge porn. The last thing I expected from a remake was to actually learn less about the situation than before. Dr. Wanless (Kurtwood Smith) gets about five minutes to share his warning that Charlie (the unforeseen product of an experimental drug that gave her parents, Andy and Sydney Lemmon‘s Vicky, telekinetic powers) might one day be able to cause a nuclear apocalypse with her mind and Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) gets about fifteen minutes to hubristically egg on those she’s trying to weaponize for the government’s gain. I don’t even think “The Shop” is mentioned once.

What’s the point when those chasing the McGees can simply exist as any nondescript agency that flaunts human rights? Call them the DSI to satisfy King fans or the FBI if you want to be lazy. Populating the building with nameless and faceless Nazis is all that matters when the only time we’re spending inside its walls is during a quick climax of destruction. Teems and Thomas decide to focus more on Charlie’s own origins instead with flashbacks to burning crib toys and evidence of her inability to control her temper at school courtesy of fireballs. I’m sure they thought doing this would endear us to her stressful plight and decide her wellbeing is enough to keep watching, but we still need to care about the world too.

That’s frankly impossible, though. The original film had issues of its own, but it knew how to humanize Andy and Charlie. Either through their relationship or the Manders’ desire to help, we saw their bond as the key to everything. Why then do the filmmakers choose to erase it here? They’ve made it so Andy and Vicky have lied to their daughter while on-the-run. They have him telling her that she needs to suppress her abilities by bottling them up inside despite his bleeding eyes revealing a truth that doing so might cause more damage. No matter how different Professor X and Magneto’s implementation of their foundational principles are, they both realized that training was a necessity before accomplishing anything real. Andy’s refusal ostensibly renders him the villain.

All the bad things that happen are his fault. It’s an intriguing shift, but one that demands a reckoning to make it worthwhile. There’s sadly no time, though. Not when the new script cares only about a pyrotechnic finale that easily puts the 1984 film to shame. They’re so focused on waiting that they hold back on everything else. We expect to watch Charlie burn police officers on the Manders’ front lawn because that’s what happened before, but we get gunshots instead. It’s as though the filmmakers believe that Drew Barrymore‘s Charlie was “too violent” because they go to great lengths to absolve Armstrong’s iteration of all wrongdoing. They take away her autonomy throughout as if a kid killing with intent would earn an NC-17 rating.

Not only that, Teems and Thomas set-up a revenge plot with pulse-pounding synth beats (John Carpenter and company borrow heavily from his Halloween score) that cannot go anywhere because of it. If Charlie can’t commit murder (she promised never to hurt people with her powers), what are we really supposed to be anticipating? The odd accidental homicide excused by self-defense? Ok. Sure. The least they could do is eventually allow her eyes to open and take ownership without contorting motives to the point where she becomes a pawn in her own movie. The tone goes wild with an overload of sensory stimuli establishing that Charlie is about to rampage despite the text constantly reminding us that she’s too “pure” to follow through. That’s what Dad is for instead.

The only improvement upon its predecessor (besides the forty-year advancement of special effects) is therefore Rainbird. Yes, casting an actual indigenous actor like Greyeyes goes a long way (George C. Scott played the Cherokee role before), but the real enhancement was giving him complexity. More than a sadistic assassin mumbling cryptic notes about the afterlife, this Rainbird is a man at war with himself thanks to a similarly antagonistic relationship with the DSI. The film never supplies the room necessary to dig in and make him fully three-dimensional, but it does provide him a voice beyond parroting his bosses. And while excising the subplot of “John the orderly” for hackneyed subterfuge is a plus, the alternative doesn’t quite earn his ending spot. It is a good start, though.

I guess you can say that about the whole since it ends with more questions than it starts with. Did Universal anticipate sequel potential? Does any studio produce content without that anticipation anymore? Unfortunately, where building television seasons with cliffhangers works due to the medium assuming more is always coming until cancellation, films are a different beast. Unless you’ve already greenlit a trilogy, creating from a position of hope only causes the product to suffer beneath the weight of its incompleteness. Teems has stripped things so far that this Firestarter feels like a sizzle reel selling promise rather than a consumable work. It reminds me of the new “Mosquito Coast” show: patting itself on the back for pulling an era-specific work into the present while forgetting everything else.

[1] Photo Credit: Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures Caption (from left) Andy (Zac Efron) and Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) in Firestarter, directed by Keith Thomas. Copyright © 2022 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Photo Credit: Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures Caption Michael Greyeyes as Rainbird in Firestarter, directed by Keith Thomas. Copyright © 2022 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Photo Credit: Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures Caption (from left) Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) in Firestarter, directed by Keith Thomas. Copyright © 2022 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.

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