Firestarter is a dull, flat, and empty film. It makes watching the movie frustrating because of the flickers of more exciting and visually intense film that pop up from time to time. But by the end, I was left wondering how a movie about a girl with the power to control reality and start fire fighting against a sprawling secret organization that ultimately created her while battling her own emotions and learning to control her power could feel so monotonous.
To call Keith Thomas’s remake trite is unfair. Especially though I haven’t seen the 1984 version starring a young Drew Barrymore, the current iteration seems very much trying to hew as close to the original as possible. Thomas and his screenwriter Scott Teems attempt to give the movie a late 70s early 8os feel while maintaining modern sensibilities. It creates a strange dissonance.
The result is a film that feels out of place and out of time, not in a good way. Based on a Stephen King book, as adapted by Teems, the story lacks any of the emotional nuances we are used to in King’s work. In the beginning, there are sparks of rage and sadness, but those quickly give way to a monotonous drabness that permeates the film.
Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is a young girl whose powers have been known since birth. Her father, Andy (Zac Efron), and mother, Vicky (Sydney Lemmons), move her from town to town to try and hide her from the sinister government organization that wants to study her.
At the very beginning, Firestarter shows its hand. It opens like a television show, with a cold open right before the credits. The opening is, like everything else, poorly lit and dreary in tone. But the credits, the opening credits, show flashes of playfulness and understanding of how to keep us on our toes.
It is a montage of a young Andy and Vicky being interviewed about their psychic abilities. We hear Dr. Wanless (Kurtwood Smith) as he tries to interrogate the two jovially. Smith’s voice work here is phenomenal, as is Efron and Lemmon’s acting. Furthermore, Thomas uses blues and yellows, as the images are distorted, and we’re never given the complete picture of what’s going on.
Sadly, the film will rarely reach such creative heights ever again. However, we do learn that the film’s score is by Daniel Davies, Cody Carpenter, and, lo and behold, John Carpenter. This tidbit seems cruel to tell the audience in the beginning. It only gets our hopes up. Especially because Firestarter seems hellbent on either overusing the score or denying us its chaotic electronic energy. The score isn’t amazing and sometimes feels like a pale imitation of Carpenter’s work for Halloween, but it at least has an enthralling vibe lacking in the rest of the movie.
Teems’s script is an empty sheet in the wind. It doesn’t help that Thomas seems hellbent on refusing to create any sense of emotional throughline or even explore anything. Throughout most of Firestarter, the script and the direction work together in perfect tedious harmony to make sure nothing of interest ever happens or, God forbid, is even discussed. However, sometimes, like a wish on a monkey’s paw, the characters will finally have a conversation, only to explore new heights of the mundane.
Characters zombie-walk through scenes with little to no motivation. In addition, the actors are thrown together in frames and forced to regurgitate clunky and inane dialogue. Worse, when there is occasionally more than one character on screen, they never feel as if they are sharing the same space. As a result, the actors never connect, leaving so much of Firestarter feeling like we are watching a dress rehearsal.
One example is a scene early on where Charlie, in an argument with her parents, loses control of her powers. Flames scorch Vicky’s arms. Andy tries his best to apply some first aid but leaves Vicky alone to take Charlie out for some ice cream.
While talking to Charlie, Andy learns a chilling discovery. Charlie tells him bluntly, as only a child can, “It was meant to be you.” This moment should be a revelation, a realization on Andy’s part that Vicky was right about Charlie needing to be taught how to harness her powers. Or, at the very least, the terror that his daughter just tried to light him on fire.
Yet, Firestarter can’t seem to make even this moment land with any effectiveness. The movie fumbles these emotional beats so often that it’s a miracle when an actor can break through and find a genuine moment. Kurtwood Smith does fine with what he’s given, and the great John Beasley bravely trundles through whatever scraps he is ab;e to gleam from Teems’s script.
But the MVP of Firestarter is Micahel Greyeyes, who plays John Rainbird. Greyeyes played the sheriff in Jeff Barnaby’s brutal and lovely zombie flick Blood Quantum. Here Greyeyes brings a quiet fatalism to his psychic hitman. Or is he a bounty hunter?
It’s hard to tell.
John Rainbird is probably the most underwritten character after Lemmon’s Vicky. But Greyeyes has more screen time and uses the lack of anything to do to find ways to bring a conflicted sinisterness to his role. Greyeyes as Rainbird brings a sort of pathos in how he plays Rainbird, he’s not a wildcard, but he’s also not predictable.
Karim Hussain’s camera, at times, plays with framing and placement to give Firestarter a sense of being off-kilter. For example, one scene involves Greyeyes, Armstrong, and Efron. Greyeyes has the little girl, his hands covering her eyes, using the overhead light to block his eyes so Efron’s Andy can’t use his psychic powers. Hussain’s camera uses this to add a strange otherworldly tension to the scene.
Unfortunately, Hussain’s camera spends so much time in the dark and lights it so poorly that we can barely see anything, even if his placement might be interesting. It doesn’t help that it seems that Armstrong might not be up to the task of playing Charlie. She can’t entirely sell the raging storm of turmoil behind her eyes.
Thomas seems lost with what to do. There’s no prominent theme or motif throughout Firestarter. Every scene feels somewhat disconnected but never in a way that feels intentional. One scene has young Charlie in the woods learning to harness her powers. Thomas, Teems, and Hussain put it all together, so it feels depressingly rote.
There’s a great well of emotion to explore in the concept of Firestarter. But Thomas doesn’t seem to figure out how to tap into it. Except in a few critical moments towards the end, mostly involving Greyeyes’s Rainbird as he accepts his fate only to realize it is not what he had assumed. However, Hussain’s camera wisely understands the power of the human face, and there in the dark, lit by the fire, we see sadness, hope, and redemption.
Firestarter never figures out how to capture these moments. Thomas and Teems never feel as if they have a handle on what they want to do. On the bright side, I left the theater wondering when I would see Michael Greyeyes again. It’s a shame it’s buried inside Firestarter.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures
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