Full disclosure: I’m coming into this one totally fresh. I haven’t read the book, nor have I seen the 1984 adaptation with Drew Barrymore. All I knew of Firestarter (2022) going in is that it’s a Blumhouse release, meaning it would be a horror film made on the cheap. I also knew it was written by Scott Teems, who co-wrote Halloween Kills and hasn’t done much of anything noteworthy else. In the director’s chair is Keith Thomas, who only technically made his film debut last year with The Vigil, another Blumhouse release that got so far lost in the scrum of 2021 that it barely got released and nobody saw it.

And that right there is pretty much all you need to know about this one.

Our premise begins with Andy and Vicky McGee, respectively played by Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon. At some point in the past, the two of them were enrolled as test subjects in some kind of shady government program testing psychoactive effects by way of a new drug in development. (Think Project MKUltra, the exposure of which was still fresh in the public consciousness when the source novel was first published in 1980.) The long and short is that Vicky came out of the project with telekinetic powers, and Andy is now telepathic. The both of them were somehow able to escape, and now they’re on the run from the government agency that created them.

We open some time later, as the both of them are still together and still on the lam, and now they’re raising a young daughter (Charlie, played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Trouble is, Charlie inherited both of her parents’ abilities, and she’s pyrokinetic besides. She’s vastly more powerful than either of her parents, with abilities far more destructive, and she has no idea how to control herself.

Making matters worse, Charlie draws the attention of Cpt. Hollister (Gloria Reuben). She’s just taken command of our shadowy government agency, and she’s eager to make a name for herself by capturing our family of fugitives. Thus she calls in Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), another telepathic superhuman, who grudgingly comes out of retirement to track them down. And we’re off to the races.

To start with, Armstrong has a great future. She can be charming, she can be sympathetic, she can be terrifying, and all points in between. There’s always a risk that a child actor in a lead role will turn out to be flat or annoying, but Armstrong totally sells the character’s pathos. She’s a significant part of what makes the film work. In fact, I’d argue she’s the only part of the film that works.

I applaud Zac Efron for his efforts at trying to age artistically and push his limits as an actor. The trouble is, we don’t see very much of Andy’s time in the program, and we don’t even really see all that much of the program itself until the third act or so. All we really have to go on is Andy’s word that this is a serious threat, and he simply can’t sell it. The trauma, the paranoia, the all-consuming horror at the thought of getting caught… Efron is trying his darnedest to tell what the filmmakers don’t show, but it’s not enough. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s acting opposite Sydney Lemmon, who’s a total nonentity here.

Our heavy has the opposite problem. Michael Greyeyes has a fantastic screen presence, and I could effortlessly believe him as a lethal threat. Unfortunately, the character’s motivation is incoherent. With literally every single action that Rainbird took, I found myself bewildered with the question of why he was doing any of this. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why he was working for this shadowy government agency or what he thought he was getting from any of this.

Likewise, Cpt. Hollister makes no lick of sense whatsoever. On paper, the character talks as if she’s conflicted about her role in all of this. She openly acknowledges that the MKUltra knockoff was a bad idea and she’s trying to resolve this whole thing as humanely as possible. But the delivery is something else entirely. Despite all her nuanced dialogue, the character acts and looks like a scenery-chewing one-dimensional cartoon villain.

This lack of nuance is a recurring problem. Given that this is a Blumhouse film, it’s a Stephen King story, and we’ve got a delightfully creepy musical score from John Fucking Carpenter (with help from son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies), you’d expect this to be a horror film, right? Nope. The jump scares are not only cheap and obnoxious, but few and far between. I could also point to the over-reliance on close-ups and extreme close-ups, an aggressive style of camerawork that leaves little room for nuance.

(Side note: John Carpenter was all set to direct Firestarter back in 1984, but he got fired from that project after his iconic The Thing bombed at the box office. Why in the nine hells Carpenter wasn’t given another shot and brought on to direct this one, I couldn’t tell you.)

But what really kills the horror element is that in the absence of a clearly defined villain that registers as a palpable threat, Charlie herself is the monster. The film can waffle about that all day long, but then Charlie torches an unarmed person who never directly did anything to hurt her, on their knees literally begging her for mercy. There’s no coming back from that. A line has been crossed. I don’t even think Carrie ever went that far, to my memory.

Oh, and Charlie sets a cat on fire. Yeah. She straight-up murders a stray cat. That happens. Onscreen.

So it doesn’t work as a horror, but does it work as science fiction? Well, not really. There’s certainly room for commentary with regard to scientific hubris, the ethics of medical testing, the horrible possibility of inventing something that can never be uninvented, and so on. We even get a brief scene of Kurtwood Smith acting his heart out as our J. Robert Oppenheimer analogue. Alas, the angle doesn’t work because there’s no coherent statement on the topic. Again, the opaque motivations of our antagonists are a huge problem here.

Another significant problem is a plot detour in the second act, featuring John Beasley in the role of a Good Samaritan named Irv. There was real potential here in showing how Charlie and her powers might be used to help people and bring about some positive impact in the world. But before we can spend any time thinking about that, the plot barges in and we’re on to the next action set piece. This is immediately followed by Charlie learning to control her powers in the span of a training montage, thus her main development arc as a super-powered being is given short shrift.

In summary, the horror element is overblown, the sci-fi element is undercooked, the fantasy element is dropped and broken, and the coming-of-age element is rushed. It’s that last one that’s most tragic, in my opinion. This story about a young woman learning to embrace her gifts and use her voice instead of playing it safe and keeping her head down could’ve made a marvelous feminist allegory (a threadbare trope, to be sure, but still). Too bad it fails because the coming-of-age aspect was so terribly mishandled.

Firestarter (2022) is a mess. Sure, the cast could’ve been stronger (except maybe for Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who really is indeed on fire here), and it doesn’t help that the filmmakers had to cram everything into a scant 90 minutes. But I honestly think that neither one of those could’ve been insurmountable problems if the director was up to par. A good director could’ve taken this same cast and this same runtime and delivered a more focused story with a clear idea of what it wanted to be and say. A great director could’ve blended all these disparate elements into something greater than the sum of its parts. Alas, we’re stuck with a film from an inexperienced director without the talent or the vision to adapt the story into anything coherent.

I sincerely wish everyone involved (except maybe producer Akiva Goldsman, the overrated hack) better luck next time. This one’s a nonstarter.

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