The new sci-fi/horror hybrid Firestarter is quite a few things. It’s a remake of the Drew Barrymore-starring chiller that was released 38 years (almost to the day, as fate would have it) prior to this iteration. It’s another Stephen King adaptation, an author whose work has been the direct inspiration for dozens of films, TV series, and stage productions over the decades. It’s yet another modestly budgeted Blumhouse Productions project, one of six slated for release this year. Most important for streaming war beancounters, it’s Peacock’s latest hope that prospective subscribers will be drawn in enough by the film’s familiar marketing to start a free trial, and forget about cancelling after it expires. But perhaps it’s most pertinent to instead detail what Firestarter is not: engaging, well-crafted, or necessary.
Firestarter’s opening credits show video footage of college students Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) being interviewed for a clinical trial involving an experimental chemical drug known as Lot-6. Years later, the pair is married with 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and all three are burdened with supernatural powers as a result of Lot-6. Andy’s ability to psychically influence people (“the push,” as he calls it) and Vicky’s telekinesis are generally well-controlled, but Charlie’s burgeoning pyrokinesis isn’t maintained as effectively. An incendiary incident at her school alerts agents of the Department of Scientific Intelligence, a shadowy government organization aimed at monitoring and controling those concealing superhuman faculties.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how 1980s science-fiction, like the original Firestarter and Barrymore’s preceding film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, inspired the megahit series Stranger Things on Netflix. The story points of a young girl discovering her growing superpowers and a group of youngsters hiding the supernatural force from scary government officials were fused together in the show’s first season. Netflix (which, curiously, is name-dropped twice during this Peacock product) saw the power in the nostalgia behind these cultural touchstones and has (at least until recently) coasted on Stranger Things’ success since its premiere. Even with this wind at its back, this Firestarter can’t fan the flames long enough to set up a compelling story.
The problems start with the dull script from Scott Teems, which doesn’t develop its protagonists well enough for us to care about them, and doesn’t spend enough time with the antagonists to make them feel threatening. The inclusion of groan-inducing lines like, “I don’t need to see your eyes to feel your fear,” certainly don’t help the movie’s cause either.
Some of these story elements could be overcome by strong performances, but Efron and Armstrong don’t have the kind of chemistry to sell the father-daughter relationship upon which the film’s pathos would presumably rely. The best acting comes courtesy of Michael Greyeyes as a troubled superhuman caught between the will of the DSI and the potential of Charlie’s future.
One aspect that is far above the pedigree of everything else is the terrific musical score, a collaboration between vaunted horror composer John Carpenter, his son, Cody, and musician Daniel Davies. Electronic band Survive leaned heavily on John Carpenter’s synth-heavy scores when composing the music for Stranger Things, but it’s even more fulfilling to hear the original master at work again in the playground he helped build. Eerie and enveloping, the pulsating music drives the narrative forward better than most of the characters and dialogue.
Sadly, the flat and uninspired cinematography by Karim Hussain can’t visually match what the trio of composers are able to accomplish sonically.
Firestarter is a non-starter in the race between streaming services trying to outdo one another with brand-new titles.
New movies coming this weekend
Coming only to theaters is Downton Abbey: A New Era, a sequel to the 2019 TV-to-film adaptation starring Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern following the Crawley family and Downton staff as they receive a royal visit from the King and Queen of Great Britain.
Premiering only in theaters is Men, a folk horror film starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear about a young woman who goes on a solo holiday in the English countryside after the death of her husband, and encounters an ominous presence there.
Streaming on Disney+ is Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a live-action/animated family movie with John Mulaney and Andy Samberg voicing the titular chipmunks, who reunite 30 years after their TV series to rescue a missing member of the original cast.