There’s a scene early in Firestarter where parents Andy and Vicky McGee (Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon) disagree about how to raise their young pyrokinetic daughter, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Andy believes Charlie should suppress her psychic fire-starting abilities, so as not to attract unwanted attention, while Vicky believes that she should embrace them. Both parents have Charlie’s best interests at heart, though their methods drastically differ. It’s in scenes like these which focus on the McGee family dynamic that the film works best. Unfortunately, it never quite reaches that level again.
Stephen King is a master at crafting juvenile characters, and the same is true in Charlie. She’s grappling with her burgeoning pyrokinetic powers as well as the typical frustrations and worries of an eleven-year-old—school bullies, puberty, arguing with her parents over her lack of independence. Some of King’s portrait of Charlie transfers to the film—like Charlie’s heartbreaking desire to be normal and fit in with her peers—but on the whole, she’s not developed enough for us to really care about her or her journey. Sure, we know about her powers and complicated emotions, and we sympathize with her as she spends the film evading nefarious government agents who are trying to locate and study her like a lab rat. But the film just doesn’t take great enough pains to show us why we should care. In fact, Charlie isn’t particularly likeable here. Yes, she has difficulty regulating her emotions, especially given the storm of tragedy brewing around her, but her vengeance feels particularly mean-spirited. Imagine if Carrie had begun with her revenge at the prom without showing what led to it. There’s no real build-up, no earned catharsis.
The same goes for Andy (whose ending is incredibly anticlimactic and unearned), as well as the members of “the Shop,” the menacing organization hell-bent on studying Charlie’s powers. King’s novel paints them as a particularly powerful and horrific human threat, but the film doesn’t focus on the Shop enough—either as an organization or the people running it—for us to see them as antagonistic as it probably intended.
However, one of the film’s highlights is the character of assassin John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes). Though he’s only in a few scenes, Greyeyes manages to do a lot with a little, successfully conveying Rainbird’s backstory and conflicted morals in determined strides or careful glances. It’s easy to imagine that there’s a much more interesting film focused on deepening his character, but unfortunately the picture seems content to relegate him to the generic role of Bad Guy Assassin.
There are times when a more interesting feature can be seen poking through the surface, such as the McGee family dynamic, the killer soundtrack from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies, or the atmospheric opening credits (both which give the film a cool 1980s vibe), but overall, it’s missing the source material’s character depth, grittiness, and sense of paranoia.
There’s nothing terrible about Firestarter. It’s just bland (especially for a chase movie). And that’s somehow worse. When filmmakers have a treasure trove of King’s character work and suspense at their disposal, it’s mindboggling why it’s not taken advantage of. The result is an adaptation that’s more lukewarm than flaming hot.
Those looking for a hefty portion of special features won’t be disappointed. The Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Firestarter features nearly an hour of bonus content, including feature commentary by director Keith Thomas, 7 deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel, and an alternate ending (which is not drastically different from the finished film).
There’s also 4 “Making Of” featurettes (“A Kinetic Energy,” “Spark a Fire,” “Igniting Firestarter,” and “Power Struggle”) that feature interviews with producer Jason Blum, Keith Thomas, writer Scott Teems, as well as the film’s stars like Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Michael Greyeyes.
Firestarter is available on Blu-ray and DVD as of June 28th.