Saturday, December 9, 2023

Movie Review: ‘Firestarter’ Never Catches On

Director: Keith Thomas

Writer: Scott Teems

Stars: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Michael Greyeyes

Synopsis: A young girl tries to understand how she mysteriously gained the power to set things on fire with her mind.

Of the myriad questions we could be asking, as the movie-going public, there’s only one that matters when it comes to Firestarter. It’s not, why do we need new adaptations when a perfectly good one exists. The question is not, why didn’t the producers choose to have Billie Eilish do a creepy cover of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” to end the movie. The real and most pertinent question is, are we ready for Zac Efron to be playing the part of a dad? It felt like yesterday he was a fresh faced teen who morphed easily into a hunky college age schemer. He is the right age, sure, but that face. That adorable face of his is going to strain credulity until, like we did with Paul Rudd, we’ll somehow just accept Efron’s over 30 and move forward.

We can ponder these questions as we watch Firestarter because the film leaves us with little else to ponder. Once the action starts, it’s easy to see the point by point of where the story’s going, even if you haven’t read the source novel or seen the original adaptation. It’s not that every horror film needs a central metaphor to bring us out of the blood, gore, and terror to relate it to our lives, but it would be nice if Firestarter had something larger at stake. 

Dr. Wanless (Kurtwood Smith) explains that at a certain point Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) may be so powerful that she could explode with the force and impact of a nuclear bomb. Scary, for sure, but if wi-fi, smart phones, and the internet are going to be added in, why not make it more of an immediate threat? What if Dr. Wanless mentions that if Charlie wanders into a dry forest near a densely populated area, she could start a forest fire that they could never put out? Now there’s something to challenge our notions about Charlie and about the morality of the situation. That’s something Scott Teems never quite lands on in his script. He hints at these larger ideas, brushes them broadly, but there’s nothing to give a concrete reason for the madness.

Often Firestarter feels like a movie John Carpenter would have made in the ’80s. A lot of the effects look like they were created practically, from the visceral charred skin makeup, to the fire that pops out of the air on people’s arms, to the music which is an eerie, haunting, moody synthesizer driven melody. The music is because John Carpenter, along with his son Cody and their collaborator Daniel A. Davies, does create a soundscape that is far more interesting and aurally pleasing than the film. It also signals that this is intended as a horror film.

Until the final moments, when Charlie is fully unleashed, the chills and thrills are yawn worthy. It’s that final sequence that sort of redeems a lot of the lacklusterness of the action. Up until that point, there were often cut aways when the psychic powers and especially Charlie’s psychic powers are being performed. A budget constraint to be sure, but one that makes an audience wonder, as two people are engulfed in a column of flame in that thrilling final sequence, you couldn’t have spread some more of this throughout the movie?

The other redeeming quality within the film is the performance of Michael Greyeyes. He plays Rainbird, an assassin within the shadow organization, DSI, who is a psychic as well. While he’s not given much to do beyond glower and menace, Greyeyes makes a meal of these scenes and is able to make the, not quite shift in morality, but certainly shift in loyalty, a much more believable one. He’s an actor who uses subtlety to perfection.

Firestarter evokes no strong feelings. It’s not a film that has a point of view or an urge to get you to understand something about human nature. While none of this is enough to make you wish you hadn’t started Firestarter, you may be wondering if there’s some other way you could have spent an hour and a half that would have left you more satisfied.

Grade: D



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