Warning: Lots of spoilers. Deal with it.
Firestarter is one of those remakes, like Adrian Lynne’s 1997 Lolita, that seems to have been devised to elevate opinion of the previous adaptation by proving how been much worse things could have turned out. In the case of Firestarter, the remake sports a few improvements, some solid performances, and a few good scenes, but overall the film feels threadbare and ill-conceived, building toward a silly ending the endeavors to set up a sequel that hopefully will never materialize.
As previously, the story follows Charlie McKee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), daughter of Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), test subjects in a scientific experiment that bequeathed them psychic powers. Charlie is even more powerful, able to start fires at will; in fact, she is potentially so dangerous that the company behind the experiments is trying to track down the family, who avoid detection by staying off the grid, avoiding the internet and taking payment for work in cash only. Eventually, the company sends a Native American assassin named Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes). After Rainbird’s botched attempt to capture Charlie gets her mother killed, Andy takes his daughter on the run. Eventually Andy is captured, and Charlie comes to the rescue, immolating the company and everyone who works there except for the one person she has the most personal reason to kill, because…reasons!
Sorry for the spoilers, but the storyline in its present form is beyond silly. Whereas the book and the first film adaptation trended toward action, featuring a cross-country trek to stay ahead of the bad guys (a la Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) the new Firestarter plays like a drab, low-budget affair, terminally murky in its nighttime photography, and without the resources to mount a large scale adventure. The plot has been ruthlessly condensed, blurring or simply omitting context that would make sense of the characters’ actions.
The central challenge of adapting the story is that Charlie is supposed to be an innocent child, but she is forced into a situation where she has to ruthlessly kill lots of people. In the 1984 film, Charlie was played by Drew Barrymore, who was sweet and adorable, so it was okay (or at least the audience was supposed to think so). In the remake, we do not know what to make of Armstrong as Charlie because the filmmakers do not know what to make of her character. Aiming for grim horror, the director has her scowl like a little murder goblin without much concern for what the audience is supposed to feel: is she a victim defending herself, or is she more like Stephen King’s previous psychic girl, Carrie, pushed so far she turns into a monster, destroying guilty and innocent alike? The remake provides no answer; it seems almost unaware of the question.
Which leads to the absolutely weird conclusion in which Charlie lets Rainbird live instead of killing him in retaliation for the death of her mother, and Rainbird, instead of assassinating her when he has the chance, absconds with her as if he is going to become a surrogate father and…what, exactly? We will probably never know, as the box office returns were too low to justify a sequel.
There is material in King’s novel that could have been used to set up this situation, but the film does not bother to include it. In the book, after Charlie is captured, Rainbird disguises himself as a janitor and manages to strike up a phony friendship with her, all the while still planning to kill her. If this relationship had been established in the film, we might – just might – understand why Charlie spared his life, and we might even accept (if not enjoy) the two of them uniting before the final fadeout. As it stands, the ending is absurd: Charlie kills anonymous employees during her rampage at the company – people who have done nothing specific to harm her expect work there – but she spares the man responsible for her mother’s death?
All that said, the film does have some virtues. Efron is great as Andy, and there is an interesting conflict between him and his wife about whether they should train Charlie to use her powers or try to suppress them because they are too dangerous.
Also, in the intervening decades since the the first screen adaptation, cinematic technique has progressed to the point where the remake can effectively portray the characters’ psychic abilities. Visualizing Charlie’s power was always relatively straight forward – she ignites fires after all – but Andy’s psychic “push” was a challenge that tripped up the 1984 film. Now some close-ups and subtle effects effectively suggest the invisible power at work when Andy gets insides the minds of other characters.
Finally, there is a moody music score, including contributions from John Carpenter, which gives the film a certain geek credibility. Carpenter was supposed to helm the ’84 Firestarter, until disappointing ticket sales for The Thing (1982) convinced Universal Pictures to hand the project over to Mark Lester, so there is a sort of cosmic justice in Carpenter finally getting to contribute something to a film adaptation of King’s novel.
Sadly, these strengths provide just enough promise in the early scenes to make the conclusion terribly disappointing. The weak motivations and scaled down production might have been tolerable if the film had effectively grappled with the moral issue regarding how and to what extent Charlie should use her power not only to defend herself but also to take vengeance against her family’s tormentors. Instead, the question is ignored in favor of using the premise as an excuse for a cheesy horror scenario setting up a sequel no one wants to see.
Ultimately, the 2022 Firestarter illustrates the danger of being vague rather than ambiguous. The horror genre has its share of characters who are both good and bad, attractive and repulsive, lovable and hateable (think of Frankenstein’s creation, especially in Mary Shelly’s novel). What makes these characters compelling is that they inspire both reactions from the audience, making it difficult to clearly define them as either heroes or villains. Firestarter leaves us uncertain about Charlie – not because the film gives us reasons to feel conflicting emotions about her but because it’s too vague to makes us feel much one way or the other.
Some solid performances and a few good scenes raise some expectations that this remake can exceed the original, but ultimately the film throws everything away in favor of a ridiculous ending added to set up a sequel no one wants.
Firestarter (Universal, Blumhouse, 2022). Directed by Keith Thomas. Screenplay by Scott Teems, based on the novel by Stephen King. Runtime: 94 mins. Rated R. US Release Date: May 12.
- Zac Efron: Andy McGee
- Ryan Kiera Armstrong: Charlie McGee
- Sydney Lemmon: Vicky McGee
- Michael Greyeyes: Rainbird
- Gloria Reuben: Captain Hollister
- Kurtwood Smith: Dr. Joseph Wanless