Saturday, 28 May 2022

Firestarter (2022) - Movie Review

The 1984 film version of Stephen King’s Firestarter is… okay. It doesn’t reach the oft-underappreciated heights of the better movie adaptations, nor does it succumb to the amazingly goofy lows of those ‘90s TV miniseries. It mainly gets by on the personality of its cast, especially Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott, and while the treatment of its superpower-adjacent thrills was a little bland (especially compared to how bombastic King adaptations regularly get), there was enough on offer to make the whole package watchable. With how much of an upgrade more recent King adaptations have been, the idea of remaking this particular feature seemed understandable enough; there’s a lot left to work with. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a feature that would feel this much like I’d been licking drywall for an hour and a half.

Let’s start with the cast, and the first real disappointment with this production: Zac Efron is not that good here. For about as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been consistently pleased with just how far he’s come into his own as an actor, even when working on less-than-ideal scripts (hello, Dirty Grandpa). But here, there’s a certain… I know this is going to sound trite, but coldness to his character. As the father of the titular Firestarter, he sticks mainly to the ‘suppress your power and maybe it’ll just go away’ part of the formula, which is not only extremely tired by this point in these kinds of stories, but he can’t even make it sound reasonable coming out of his own mouth.

To say nothing of Ryan Kiera Armstrong as his daughter Charlie, which marks the second disappointment. Now, Drew Barrymore (both as a child and even as an adult, to be brutally honest) isn’t that great of an actor, but as a understandably scared child with the power to turn the entire world into the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, her believability in that role did the film around her a major service. It helped anchor how much of the film was focused on her psychology. Armstrong, even with her prior experience in the genre and with Stephen King (between her roles in American Horror Story: Double Feature and It: Chapter Two), doesn’t get across either the impact of her powers or the people and places she gets thrown into because of them. For someone who’s meant to be the emotional core of the narrative, that’s not a good sign.

But hey, at least those two left enough of an impression that I could pick up on what doesn’t work; no-one else here gets even that far. Sydney Lemmon as Charlie’s mother exists to be fridged and that’s about it, Kurtwood Smith shows up for one scene and I’ll be fucked if I can figure out why (both from a production point-of-view and from a narrative point-of-view), Gloria Reuben is a placid gender-swap for the role that Martin Sheen had for dinner in the original, and Michael Greyeyes… man, I get the feeling that his character, removed from every other part of this shit, would be an interesting lead in his own story. His motivations switch up so sporadically that it feels like there’s pages missing from the script (to say nothing of the astoundingly vacuous sequel-baiting passing for a conclusion to all this), but somewhere in his parameters as an Indigenous lab rat turned bounty hunter, there lies what is likely the most intriguing character here. I’m not saying I wanted George C. Scott to come back from the grave to play this role again; I’m just pointing out how warped this film’s priorities seem to be, just looking at the cast.

And that feeling carries on into the production values here, where we hit our third major letdown in the form of director Keith Thomas, who made the quite refreshing Jewish horror flick The Vigil a couple years back. Whatever sense of character intimacy or emotionality that would’ve made the transition from that to this story make perfect sense is seemingly abandoned, replaced with an incredibly ill-timed sense of humour at just about every turn. Writer Scott Teems was also added to the writer’s room for Halloween Kills, and I’m beginning to suspect that that film’s drawbacks were largely the result of his involvement, as a lot of what he has in mind when it comes to horror is almost-impressively backwards. Because the text spends more time making oddly-placed jokes than it does building up any kind of tension, any scares that are found here seem purely accidental, which cuts into most of the angles that the narrative tries to present itself through (family drama, supernatural horror, quasi-superhero thriller, etc.)

If I had to take a wild guess at who exactly led this film down the wrong path, I wouldn’t point at either the director or the writer, but rather one of my old favourite creative targets: Producer Akiva Goldsman. Quite frankly, it seems like he’s a little butt-hurt that his script for Doctor Sleep got rewritten by Mike Flanagan, and he wanted to show that his own take on a similar concept would’ve been just fine if that pesky person with actual talent to spare hadn’t have interfered. The way Charlie’s pyrokinesis is depicted in-story is very similar to the Shining in both Doctor Sleep and The Dark Tower (which Goldsman also worked on the script for), building on more modern fascinations with explicitly superpowered narratives to make the source material seem a little more timely. Except, in the process of leaning into that side of things, the whole production seems to lose track of the guts of that same story: The family dynamics and it being from the perspective of a literal child with unimaginable power.

It's like the next worst step from Before I Wake, where not only is the story stuck between being a horror film and being a family drama, but it can’t even do the latter properly. Where the original was serviceable if a bit underwhelming, this is just straight-up boring. While the practical effects for the skin burns are wince-inducing in their effectiveness, and John and Cody Carpenter’s soundtrack is legitimately terrific (and admittedly interesting from a production perspective, seeing as the original film started out as a John Carpenter film), everything else feels like a failed attempt to reheat the original, while simultaneously removing anything worth having a second helping of.

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