18/05/2022

Firestarter Review: This Relatively Faithful Stephen King Adaptation Fails to Impress

Virtually ever since Stephen King started publishing stories, his works have inspired filmmakers to bring those stories to life. His career has lasted so long that projects that have already been adapted are being revisited, the latest example of which is Firestarter from director Keith Thomas and writer Scott Teems. When most horror fans hear that a beloved story is being revisited, the biggest question they have is “why?” Typically, filmmakers will attempt to make narrative or thematic changes to what came before it to help realize untapped potential in the source material, but this latest effort does little to improve upon already-charted territory. This isn’t to say that this new adaptation is meritless, as we’re given a relatively engaging tale with empathetic performances, yet it fails to bring much freshness to the table, leaving it likely only appealing to those who are entirely unaware of previous incarnations of this story.

Both Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) possess supernatural gifts, with the pair passing on these abilities to their daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). With these gifts being the result of their involvement in a governmental research project, the pair know just how valuable of an asset Charlie will be as a weapon, which is exactly why a shadow organization begins their pursuit of the young girl, igniting a deadly pursuit to obtain her.

While King has delivered audiences hundreds of different stories, they typically only earn a live-action adaptation one time and one time only, with multiple adaptations of the same story only happening in select circumstances. Back in 2017, filmmaker Andy Muschietti unveiled his new take on IT, which had previously been adapted as a two-part TV event, with advances in technology allowing for a much more impressive production value, as well as the overall narrative structure being modified to make the events of the ultimate follow-up film more fulfilling. In the case of Firestarter, however, there’s not enough about it that feels new or different to have warranted its existence in the first place, even if nothing about it is particularly poor.

The biggest deviation from the source material is that, while the story in the novel picks up following Vicky’s death and with Andy and Charlie on the run, this film instead allows audiences to witness the dynamic between the two parents and Charlie, making for a more emotional experience. Part of that dynamic involves some messy emotions, as Andy’s outlook is that Charlie should hide her gifts while Vicky thinks she needs to embrace them, if only to learn how to control them. Vicky ends up feeling more like a martyr, changing the relationship between Andy and Charlie, as he struggles with the guilt he feels over the loss of Vicky while also believing that hiding Charlie’s power is truly the best thing for their family to do. Both Andy and Charlie struggle with Vicky’s death and their connection to one another, with audiences being just as curious about how their journey will go as they are about Charlie’s more explosive abilities.

Outside of this narrative shift, there’s not much here that hasn’t been offered to audiences before. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, films like The Fury, Scanners, and King’s own Carrie were just a sampling of stories focusing on characters with supernatural and telekinetic abilities, while the recent series Stranger Things also mines that storytelling vein with Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven. This means that, while there are surely underexplored elements of such stories, it’s hard to circumvent expectations of such concepts, and this Firestarter does no such thing. The film honors both the original novel and previous film a bit too faithfully, with each beat of the story feeling expected and predictable, even to someone who isn’t familiar with earlier versions of this adventure.

This take on the material surely isn’t bad, per se, as the cast and crew clearly gave it their all, but in the telekinetic subgenre, it just feels too familiar. In this respect, the project feels more like the 2019 adaptation of Pet Sematary, which fell short of expectations by only updating the visual effects and with the narrative tweaks doing little to elevate the material. Easily the best thing that can be said about this Firestarter is that its score comes courtesy of John Carpenter and his collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies. As if any of Carpenter’s compositions aren’t exciting enough, his score comes with an additional layer of enjoyment for fans who know that he was originally attached to an adaptation of Firestarter in the early ’80s before that proposed project became too costly, resulting in that project being scrapped.

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The cast of Firestarter, including Michael Greyeyes as the mysterious assassin Rainbird, all manage to do justice to the story, yet never elevate it. The visual look honors the fiery chaos of the original story, though never quite impresses or dazzles. The narrative is tweaked just enough to initially feel fresh, yet it ultimately goes down a predictable path. This Firestarter likely won’t win over devout fans of the original movie or of the novel, but it does serve as a faithful tribute to King, moving along at an intense pace with a 94-minute run time. There’s much to be desired when it comes to revisiting a King story that has already been brought to life, though for a generation who might be oblivious to Charlie’s powers, Firestarter makes for an explosive albeit unimpressive adaptation of an allegory for unstable emotions.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Firestarter lands in theaters and on Peacock on May 13th.