2022, R, 94 min. Directed by Keith Thomas. Starring Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron, Sydney Lemmon, Michael Greyeyes, Kurtwood Smith, Gloria Reuben.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 20, 2022

Is Firestarter the worst Stephen King adaptation ever? No, for that will forever be The Langoliers. But is it the most incoherent, unengaging, and weirdly mean-spirited? The answer is a big flaming bag-of-poop-on-your-porch yes.

King's 1980 novel, about a young girl with pyrokinetic powers (that's the ability to start fires with her brain) was adapted in 1984, and that version played on the fact that Charlie, the titular firestarter, was played by Drew Barrymore. Two years out from her heartwarming performance in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, she was America's nine-year-old sweetheart, the new Shirley Temple. The rest of the film was a mixed and overly long conspiracy theory horror thriller that's not aged especially well, in particular the baffling decision to cast George C. Scott as a Native American assassin.

If only insensitive casting and a slog of a run time were the limits of the flaws weighing against this wholly misguided remake. The bad decisions start, as always, with the script, and after the ungodly mess of Halloween Kills, writer Scott Teems is now 0-for-2 on big-budget horror reboots (shudder preemptively for whatever he has in store for The Exorcist). It's hard to believe that this is the same writer behind sensitive but brutal drama That Evening Sun, and even the dour and underseen police procedural thriller The Quarry, both of which were built on a subtle understanding of human motivations. Teems' Firestarter is merciless in its quest to avoid any sense of empathy for any of the characters, whether it's American Horror Story's Ryan Kiera Armstrong as an emotionally vacant Charlie; Zac Efron as her incoherently written telepathic dad, Andy; or Sydney Lemmon as her clearly doomed telekinetic mom, Vicky. And they're the good guys, even if half the time you'll wonder if they're not secretly the villains.

Fortunately, there's an ambiguously described sinister conspiracy (is it Big Pharma? the government? the Pentaverate?) to blame, with scenery-chewing Captain Hollister (Reuben) dispatching merciless superpowered assassin Rainbird (a near-catatonic Greyeyes) to snatch Charlie, who it turns out is the flame-wielding result of her parents being part of a drug trial in college. They, in turn, are panicked because she's starting to reveal her out-of-control powers – which are explicitly not part of puberty, the script insists on telling us – and are worried that Charlie's becoming a danger to herself and others. They argue about whether to encourage their daughter to perfect her talents, or suppress them: Then, they seemingly swap motivations in just one of a cavalcade of poor writing choices.

It's definitely a disappointment for this to be director Keith Thomas' follow-up to his innovative shiva horror The Vigil. That was a story overflowing with empathy for those plagued by the unnatural, whereas this Firestarter goes out of its way to make its gritty superheroes profoundly unlikeable, either through vacuous scripting or appalling action. In the book and the first adaptation, Charlie's ability to unleash but not fully control her fire has a tragic aspect to it: Here, it's often just an excuse for some grisly special effects – off-putting when it comes to people, even worse for innocent pets.

Nothing here really works. Even a surprisingly flat score from horror master John Carpenter (who was originally slated to direct the '84 version) can't save Firestarter from being a colossal misfire.

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The Vigil
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Matthew Monagle, Feb. 26, 2021

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Firestarter, Keith Thomas, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron, Sydney Lemmon, Michael Greyeyes, Kurtwood Smith, Gloria Reuben

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