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Firestarter review: All smoke, no flame

With reboots and remakes all the rage on Hollywood, second chances have become pretty common — but just because a story gets a do-over, that doesn’t mean it will fare any better the next time around.

That’s the unfortunate case with Firestarter, Universal Pictures’ remake of the 1984 film of the same name, both of which are based on Stephen King’s novel about a young girl and her father who have powerful superhuman abilities and are pursued by a shadowy government agency. Where a young Drew Barrymore famously portrayed the titular “pyrokinetic” Charlene “Charlie” McGee in the first film, the remake casts young actress Ryan Kiera Armstrong (American Horror Story) as the fire-controlling telepath pursued by the mysterious organization known as “The Shop.” Joining her is Zac Efron (The Greatest Showman) as Charlie’s father, Andy McGee, and Michael Greyeyes (Rutherford Falls) as John Rainbird, the mercenary hired by The Shop to capture Charlie.

Ryan Kiera Armstrong screams at the camera in a scene from Firestarter.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Directed by Keith Thomas (The Vigil) from a script penned by Halloween Kills writer Scott Teems, Firestarter puts a more modern spin on King’s original tale, and diverges from the source material significantly more than its 1984 predecessor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in its efforts to set up a sequel, the film delivers a far less satisfying story than King’s novel or the closer-hewing first adaptation.

In fact, the storytelling problems with Firestarter are far outweighed by a host of other frustrating elements in the film.

Tonally, Firestarter rarely seems certain of what sort of film it wants to be. It’s simultaneously a horror story that isn’t very scary and a sci-fi tale that doesn’t seem very invested in its own science. Whether it’s a flaw of casting chemistry or too little time spent developing their family dynamic, the bond between Charlie and her parents never feels fully realized on the screen, leaving little for audiences to connect with emotionally.

Still, Armstrong does a wonderful job of carrying the lead role in Firestarter, especially given how memorable Barrymore’s performance was in the same role. Armstrong’s version of Charlie McGee isn’t as disconnected as Barrymore’s portrayal, and she lets the character’s humanity shine through a bit more. In doing so, she provides the film with some of the only depth it gives its characters. The rest of the Firestarter cast remains largely forgettable, which is a shame, given the talent of everyone involved.

Michael Greyeyes as John Rainbird walks through a field in a scene from Firestarter.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Among the film’s most underused — and perhaps, underserved — cast members, Gloria Reuben (ERMr. Robot) shows plenty of potential as the sinister leader of The Shop, but never gets the chance to act on any of it, while Greyeyes has all the makings of a complicated, conflicted antagonist, but the film seems to punt any efforts to explore his character to future chapters of the saga. Possibly the most inexplicably wasted cast member, however, is RoboCop and That ’70s Show actor Kurtwood Smith, who makes a brief appearance as the doctor in charge of the experiments that gave Charlie’s parents their abilities and is never heard from again. His character’s part in the film could be excised completely without affecting the story whatsoever, making Smith’s presence in the film even more perplexing.

One area in which the film does deliver an exciting, entertaining experience is with the spectacular score composed by horror maestro John Carpenter, along with his son, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies. The trio previously collaborated on the scores for the 2018 pseudo-reboot Halloween and its 2021 sequel, Halloween Kills, and their work continues to make every project that features it exponentially better. In fact, at various points throughout Firestarter, the film’s score adds more dramatic heft to scenes than anything happening on the screen.

It doesn’t happen all that often that a film’s score is likely to be more popular than the film itself, but this is one of those rare occasions when it seems entirely possible.

Ryan Kiera Armstrong lights a lighter in a scene from Firestarter.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Apart from a strong performance by the film’s young lead actress and a spectacular, chilling score, Firestarter doesn’t offer much to make the case for itself as either an improvement on the original (and also flawed) 1984 film or as a reimagined spin on King’s source material. With its relatively tame approach to the premise and a cast of otherwise talented actors who seem reined in and misused within the story, the film feels like a missed opportunity all around.

That’s unfortunate, because there’s a decent spark at the heart of Firestarter, even if the film built around it doesn’t give it nearly enough fuel to burn.

Universal Pictures’ Firestarter is in theaters now and available on the Peacock streaming service.

Firestarter (2022)

Thriller, Fantasy, Horror
Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron, Sydney Lemmon
Directed by
Keith Thomas
Watch on Peacock

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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