Review: New remake of Stephen King’s ‘Firestarter’ sparks early, flames out

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Firestarter'

Two years after “E.T.,” a young Drew Barrymore starred in the sci-fi horror flick “Firestarter” (1984), a critically panned but still profitable adaptation of Stephen King’s hit 1980 novel.

This Friday, a new Blumhouse remake opens simultaneously in theaters and on Peacock. The latter is probably your best bet; it’s not really worth a trip to the multiplex to catch this lackluster remake. It squanders its initial Stephen King spark by veering into over-the-top moments, cheesy 1980s music and uncertain rules of magic to ultimately go up in flames.

It follows Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a girl with pyrokinesis, the ability to set things on fire with her mind. This forces her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) to go on the run from a secret government agency led by Capt. Hollister (Gloria Reuben), who hires bounty hunter John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to find them.

Child-star vehicles are tricky; Armstrong has big little shoes to fill in Barrymore, one of the most natural child performers ever (not to mention Sissy Spacek who was similarly picked on in school for mental powers before burning the joint down in 1976’s “Carrie”).

Armstrong earns our sympathy by counting objects in the room, a realistic portrayal of modern panic attacks. This sympathy fades after unlikable deeds, endangering her parents then torching an animal.

It’s cool to see Efron acting outside the comedic-hunk role, bleeding from his eyeballs with The Push, an ability to compel strangers to do things by staring into their eyes. As his wife, Lemmon has powers of telekinesis — the ability to move objects with her mind. Both parents are set up in a killer opening credits sequence in a top-secret government lab.

Director Keith Thomas shows early promise with a brilliant “cold open” of a baby in a crib, followed by a tracking shot around the kitchen corner to show Charlie’s photo next to a fire extinguisher. As pupils dilate from Efron’s hypnotic abilities, you’ll wonder whether this could be the next great Blumhouse remake after Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” (2020).

Sadly, it starts to go downhill, as the “rules of magic” become unclear. It makes sense that Charlie would inherit her parents’ superpowers (her father’s Push and her mother’s telekinesis), but why does she also share Rainbird’s telepathy? Add her own unique pyrokenisis and it becomes hard to keep track of who’s allowed to use which power when.

There’s also the familiar problem where characters use their powers to get out of danger early on, then conveniently don’t use them later: A flashback shows Efron using The Push to compel two agents to kill themselves, but when Rainbird threatens him later at a farm, Efron instead creates an elaborate mirage. It’s a nifty fake-out moment in the scene, but you’ll wonder why Efron didn’t just kill him on the spot.

Thankfully, there are other scenes where screenwriter Scott Teems (“Halloween Kills”) invents ways for foes to avoid Efron’s powers, be it Rainbird hiding his eyes behind a hanging kitchen lamp or Capt. Hollister wearing hi-tech contact lenses as shields.

The writer also deserves credit for working around ’80s remnants, inventing a reason for the family not to have wi-fi in 2022. Still, the director leans too hard on the cheesy ’80s music, which sadly became trendy again after Netflix’s overrated “Stranger Things” (that’s right, I said it), a pop-culture sensation I appreciated in 2016 but gave up on during Season 2.

Eleven might as well be the number of times we’ve seen the “girl with powers” concept done, from “X-Men” to “Firestarter.” The best rendition might just be “Freaks” (2018), which peeled its onion in a compelling way as Lexy Kolker discovered her powers while living like a hermit with her father (Emile Hirsch) with visits from Bruce Dern’s ice-cream truck.

Stephen King deserves all the credit in the world for pioneering the subject in both “Carrie” and “Firestarter,” but the remakes have become predictable. The 2022 “Firestarter” builds to a similarly fiery climax at the secret government headquarters, which was realistically located in a Virginia suburb of D.C. in the novel, but is now moved to the coast of Maine.

While the finale might be explosive on the page, the execution comes across as cheesy with a sacrificial family act. The lack of a final showdown with the bounty hunter is anti-climatic, as viewers will question Rainbird’s sudden shift in agenda.

At least the entire thing flies by at 94 minutes, so you could definitely do worse when scrolling for options on streaming. Just know that this particular Peacock is no Firestick.

2.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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