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Firestarter Review: Burn It Down

"Firestarter" occupies a really interesting space in Stephen King's overall body of work, and it's a space that feels on paper like something ripe for a great film adaptation. Like "Carrie," it's the story of a girl struggling to understand an often frightening mental power. Like "The Shining," it's the story of a child facing down forces bigger and more frightening than they are, even as they learn their own strength. But despite those similarities, "Firestarter" also feels like it exists in between those sensibilities, walking the line between science fiction and horror, family story and coming-of-age tale, action and emotion.

In short, while not as popular as several other novels from King's first decade of work, "Firestarter" packs a lot of elements into its narrative, and most of them seem like they'd work great on film. You've got a thrilling chase, a shadowy government agency, and more importantly, a little girl who can conjure fire in seconds. Why wouldn't you want to make that into a movie?

Unfortunately, the original 1984 film adaptation starring Drew Barrymore is still remembered as an underwhelming Stephen King movie experience, which helps explains why horror juggernaut Blumhouse tapped "The Vigil" director Keith Thomas and "Halloween Kills" co-writer Scott Teems to update the adaptation for a 21st century audience.

Sadly, despite these efforts, the new "Firestarter" is often just as underbaked as the old one. Despite a few interesting stylistic flourishes, and a killer score co-written by the great John Carpenter, it's ultimately another disappointment.

A gifted family

Though King's original novel, and the first film adaptation, pick up with the Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and her father Andy (Zac Efron) already on the run from a shadowy group known as "The Shop," Teems and Thomas opt to back the action up a bit for this version, giving us what's hopefully a little more time to get emotionally invested in the McGee family. So we see Andy using his powers of telepathic persuasion to work as a kind of under-the-table life coach, his wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) working to keep her own telekinesis under wraps, and Charlie struggling with an apparent re-emergence of her pyrokinesis, which hasn't reared its head in years but starts to simmer when she encounters bullies at school.

When we meet them, the family's been on the run for some time, well aware that the organization which experimented on Andy and Vicky when they were college students could appear at any moment and abduct Charlie, and so far they've been pretty good at hiding. When Charlie's gifts become too fiery to ignore, however, it's time to hit the road, and things only get harder when a frightening former-Shop-patient-turned assassin named John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) is put on their trail and tasked with bringing Charlie in.

Here again, it bears repeating that all of this sounds very cinematic, full of action and tension and terror all building to some kind of massive showdown by the end. There's so much to work with, and perhaps that's the problem with this new adaptation. There's an almost scattershot approach to the way Teems' script and Thomas' direction handles the material, leaning hard in action one minute only to drift back into contemplative, quiet reflections on the nature of power in the next. That would be fine, too, except that "Firestarter" doesn't ever seem interested in finding a kind of tonal dexterity within its pivot points. It doesn't function like a story building in the peaks and valleys of a thriller. It just feels like something that doesn't know what it wants to be, and that extends to the treatment of the film's characters and their respective journeys.

Smoke, but no fire

Even with its very sci-fi heavy premise in mind, "Firestarter" can still function as a horror story because of the people at the center of the narrative. You've got a father who's terrified of losing his daughter, a little girl who's terrified that one day she'll turn the flames on and never be able to stop, and a villain determined to hunt them both down with ruthless, obsessive tenacity. These are all scary things to have churning through the heads of both the characters and the audience, but here again, "Firestarter" never seems to really know what to do with them.

As he did in "The Vigil," Thomas shoots his characters with low-lit, muted intensity, adding an intimacy to the larger narrative of "Firestarter" that's honestly one of the best things about the film. The problem is that, within that intimacy, the characters seem to be talking about their feelings more than they actually feel them.

Efron does his level best with the material he's given, but the film forces him to carry the same pained facial expression for the entirety of its runtime, sanding off the edges of charm that he carries so well in other projects. Armstrong is very game to rise to the challenge of a young girl struggling to understand the fire inside her, but she never really seems to carry the sense of fear that permeates Charlie's evolving understanding of the world, and it doesn't feel like that's her fault. Every time the film seems to start bearing down on something that carries some real thematic weight, or even some real dramatic tension, it veers away again at the last second, like a fire that just won't catch despite the presence of smoke. It's all kindling, no flame, the appearance of drama and horror rather than actual drama and horror. Only Greyeyes manages to carry an air of real fear about him, but his version of Rainbird is so underused that it just makes you wish he was there more.

All of this makes "Firestarter" a frustrating watch, made all the more frustrating by the presence of some genuinely solid filmmaking craft along the way. The fire effects are cool, the sound design works, and of course John Carpenter's score stands out above any other element. There's a lot about it that should work, but it just never really takes off. It's another version of "Firestarter" that will leave you cold.

"Firestarter" is in theaters and on Peacock now.