Stephen King’s Firestarter was published in 1980; the original film starring a (very) young Drew Barrymore was released in 1984. The book wasn’t necessarily King’s best, and the movie wasn’t a masterpiece, though both had some indelible scenes and the movie’s dreamlike pacing still smolders oddly today.
After forty years, Firestarter is in some ways unsurprisingly outdated. The telekinetic manipulation of payphones, for example, isn’t going to work as a current plot device. But there are also a number of intriguing possibilities for teasing out themes that resonate today in a way they didn’t, quite, in the original.
A remake might explore the parallels between the telekinetic family who has to hide their powers and queer and LGBT+ people who are forced to conceal who they are. The themes of anti-government paranoia and secret government experiments fit neatly into our current conspiracy-theory poisoned media landscape. And the dark exploration of power and violence could serve as a commentary on our ubiquitous superhero narratives, with their cheerier view of improbably explosive energy powers.
Unfortunately, the new Blumhouse remake doesn’t follow any of these threads. Yes, superheroes and Fox are both alluded to more or less directly and there’s a good deal of tinkering with the plot. But Director Keith Thomas is too timid, or too unimaginative, to make any strong thematic decisions. The result is a movie in which both performances and narrative feel tediously adrift.
The basic backstory is intact from the novel. Andy McGee (Zac Efron) and his wife Victoria (Sydney Lemmon) were research subjects for a government experiment gone awry while they were in college. They gained psychic powers —mind control for Andy and telekinesis for Victoria. They married and had a child, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who inherited their ability as well as pyrokinesis—the ability to set things on fire. The McGees are hiding out from a shadowy government organization that wants to capture and study their daughter. When Charlie loses control of her powers after being bullied at school, the bad guys find them, and send their deadliest assassin, John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to bring them in.
Charlie is given even more powers in this than in the novel, and a lot more control over her abilities a lot quicker. Writer Scott Teems also gets rid of a lot of King’s clever cat and mouse machinations; Charlie never thinks Rainbird is her friend, as in the original.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for suspense; it’s clear from early on that Charlie can handle Rainbird without getting her heart rate up. She just about cooks him in the first act and he’s the toughest thing the movie has to throw at her. The movie attempts to generate some sort of meaningful conflict by having Andy urge Charlie not to use her powers, since killing people is wrong. King had the moral dilemma unfold over years, giving it some weight. The movie telescopes the timeline into just a couple days, which doesn’t work at all. They even mystifyingly rob Charlie of agency at the close, robbing the movie of any emotional heft.
The half-hearted acting doesn’t help things. Director Thomas is mostly to blame since everyone seems like they’re sleep-walking through their parts. Still, Gloria Reuben as chief bad guy Captain Hollister and Greyeyes as Rainbird are particularly underwhelming compared to the original 1984 turns by an oleaginous Martin Sheen and a chillingly malevolent George C. Scott. Bland good guys aren’t that unusual, but you don’t have much of a film if your bad guys are boring.
The film does make an effort to undo, or address, the original novel’s uncomfortable racist dynamics. Rainbird is Native American, and in the original he’s all but identified as Satan, linking him to longstanding, ugly Christian conflations of indigenous people with devils and evil. The 2022 movie treats him much more sympathetically and gives him an arc more complicated than “bloodthirsty killer decides to kill small child.” It was a good choice to cast an indigenous actor too, rather than another white man like Scott.
Rainbird isn’t in the movie that much, though, and we don’t really get much insight into why he makes the choices he does. There are a couple of scenes that suggest he more than half worships the magic white girl, which is a racist trope in itself. If the creators really wanted to make an antiracist film, they probably needed to cast nonwhite people as the leads. Instead, as with everything else in the movie, they chose to half-bake it.
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Image Credit: Blumhouse.
The result is a movie in which both performances and narrative feel tediously adrift.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.