The last few years has seen something of a renaissance in Stephen King adaptations, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1980’s (or the wave of TV movies in the 90’s). The last 5 years alone, we’ve been treated to newer adaptations of It, The Stand, and Pet Semetary, along with first time adaptations of Mr. Mercedes, Doctor Sleep, and a King-inspired Hulu series Castle Rock.
Given our culture’s current obsession with movies about super powered individuals, it was only a matter of time before his story about a little girl with pyrokinesis was adapted once again. To be clear, we are not here to compare Firestarter (2022) to the previous adaptation, that will be its own piece (check back for that in a few days). Rather we’re just going to be evaluating the new film on its own merits.
Conceal, Don’t Feel
We’re introduced to Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky McGee (Sydney Lemmon) as they put their baby girl Charlie in her crib to sleep. Much to their horror (but not really surprise), Charlie manages to set the room on fire just by crying. We jump ahead 11 years and now Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) tries her best to subdue her power and keep it hidden deep down.
But eventually, bullying at school pushes her to the point that she accidentally demonstrates her power, thus alerting a certain secret government agency that’s been looking for her for years. Forced to go on the run, Charlie must decide between keeping her power hidden out of safety as her father wishes, or embracing her power as her mother wishes; all while being pursued by very dangerous people who underestimate just what she can do.
You probably never thought we would bring up Disney’s Frozen here at Halloween Year-Round, but honestly it’s a fitting comparison. Both Elsa and Charlie are taught that suppressing their abilities is the best course, but doing so only increases their anxiety, and builds until there is an inevitable explosion. They also both are made to feel like monsters because their powers wind up hurting people they love, but had they been taught to harness it from the beginning, things would have gone very differently.
Hero or Villain?
Charlie is very much the protagonist here, and this is very much her origin story. And for most of the movie, it’s not certain whether she will end up being a superhero or a villain. We really get to know her and sympathize with her internal conflict. That said, the movie does take its time in the first two acts, only to rush everything in the third. The result is a rushed final character arc for her that doesn’t feel fully earned.
Perhaps another 10 minutes of runtime with better pacing would have helped the film stick the landing better. You can definitely tell that they’re trying to cram a whole novel into 90 minutes and it doesn’t always work. The movie sets up important characters and plot lines that you can tell probably have a lot more detail in the book, but here they just feel rushed and tacked on. It begs the question, if they didn’t have time to focus on a certain subplot, why include it at all?
Art Imitates Art Imitates Art
When the trailer first came out, there was a viral Twitter post where someone complained that it looked too much like Stranger Things. Clearly they weren’t aware of King’s original novel or the previous adaptation, but the comparison isn’t that far off. Eleven’s storyline from Stranger Things definitely feels inspired by the original “Firestarter” novel. But in a weird way, this movie seems like it’s borrowing some visual/aesthetic cues from Stranger Things in return.
Firestarter (2022) is set in modern day, but has a very 80s vibe in terms of its synth music, which by the way is amazing (compliments of John and Cody Carpenter). Although it doesn’t all work to its advantage. In an attempt to seem more mysterious, the film is shot in very low lighting and it makes for an incredibly washed out picture that’s hard to see, even in the complete darkness of a movie theater.
The fire itself is also very hit or miss. A lot of it is done via CGI (for obvious safety reasons), but it’s not always the best CGI. And when it’s coming from Charlie directly, it looks like a much lower budget version of Scarlet Witch and her distinct red colored magic we see coming out of her hands.
While it is very much a mixed bag, this doesn’t take away from some genuinely great performances by all involved. Zac Efron has certainly come a long way since High School Musical and demonstrated that he has serious acting chops (look no further than his chilling performance as Ted Bundy). But Ryan Kiera Armstrong deserves special recognition above all.
Between this and American Horror Story: Double Feature, Armstrong is already making a name for herself in horror. And in both performances, she demonstrates an inner conflict and propensity to just be a savage force to be reckoned with. A lot of child actors are very hit or miss, and she’s definitely the former.
Overall, Firestarter has a lot going for it: great performances, a killer soundtrack, and scenes of brutal intensity that will make you gasp. But it also suffers from some very shoddy pacing, and just isn’t shot very well from a visual perspective. It’s not the best Stephen King adaptation, but it is far, far from the worst!
What did you think of Firestarter? How did you like it compared to the 1984 film and King’s source novel? Let us know in the comments!