Firestarter Review: The Latest Stephen King Adaptation Is Lukewarm At Best

Stephen King movie adaptations have been around pretty much as long as there have been Stephen King books. Time and time again, Hollywood returns to the horror master's work, to adapt, or re-adapt, his tales of terror for new audiences. Sometimes, these adaptations work out. But as is often the case when there is oversaturation, quantity does not always equal quality. It's not enough to just slap King's name somewhere on the poster. You have to dig down into the root of his work. The reason King has been so successful for so long isn't just because he writes entertaining stories. No, despite what some critics may say about the author's pop-pulp sensibilities, King is a damn fine writer who is uniquely skilled at creating memorable characters. It's the characters that really drive King's work, not the scares. He has a way of making his creations seem real, and relatable. This, in turn, makes the horror all the more effective — if we can believe in the reality of his characters, then we're bound to be concerned when scary things come calling for them.

"Firestarter" was King's eighth published novel, and like his first book "Carrie," it followed a young girl with psychic powers. Supernaturally gifted children are a staple of King's work, and like poor Carrie White, "Firestarter" character Charlie McGee is tormented. She's a child on the run, pursued by a secretive government agency that wants to get its hands on her pyrokinetic powers. You see, Charlie can start fires with her mind. How terrifying must that be? To be both blessed and cursed with such awe-inspiring powers? Digging into the psychology of that is paramount. Or at least it would be, in a better adaptation. Sadly, Keith Thomas' "Firestarter" — the second film adaptation of King's book — doesn't bother with any of that. It doesn't bother with much of anything, really. The film flies by, and while that can often be a blessing, here it feels like a curse. There's no meat on these bones. Or, more appropriately, this fire has no spark. By the time "Firestarter" ends, it feels like the pilot for a TV series that will probably never happen. 

Screenwriter Scott Teems keeps the basic outline of King's book but reworks it, changing the timeline a bit, and modernizing it in clumsy ways ("I want wifi!" Charlie, who has been denied the internet her whole life, screams at one point). When we first meet Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who is quite good here, but ultimately failed by the material), she's living with her parents Andy (Zac Efron, weirdly bland here) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon, slightly better if underused). An opening credits sequence informs us that Andy and Vicky both possess psychic abilities, and those abilities were heightened thanks to an experimental drug called Lot 6. A mysterious organization, officially known as DSI but colloquially referred to as The Shop, ran the experiments, and turned Andy and Vicky into superpowered beings. The idea of reframing "Firestarter" as a superhero story isn't a bad one, especially in our current age when superhero flicks are constant. But aside from a brief moment where a character tells Charlie she's a "real-life superhero," not a whole lot is done with this concept. 

After the experiments, Andy and Vicky had a daughter, Charlie. And she inherited their powers — and gained some of her own, like conjuring up flames when she gets particularly angry or emotional. Her powers are dangerous; so dangerous they even worry her parents — the film opens with an extended dream sequence that involves Zac Efron holding a baby that literally catches fire in his hands. But worse than all that, the parents are worried people from The Shop want to come snatch Charlie away to study her. And they're right. 

You're a firestarter, twisted firestarter

The Shop has a new leader — Hollister (Gloria Reuben), who definitely wants to get her hands on Charlie. Reuben's character feels like a casualty of some heavy editing, because she's set up to be the film's big bad but she barely has anything to do. Who is she? What are her motivations? What is her character? Who knows! She just shows up from time to time. She also recruits a mysterious badass named Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to track down Charlie. Greyeyes is a phenomenal actor — just see his incredible turn in "Wild Indian." When I heard he was cast in this role, I was excited. But unfortunately, as is the case with Reuben's character, the film leaves him stranded. Greyeyes does manage to make an impression with his few moments — he's suitably cool and scary. But his motivations never really make sense, and the way the film wraps up his story is downright baffling. 

After a series of unfortunate events at school (events that include the world's worst teacher, who simply stands around saying nothing as bullies mock Charlie mercilessly), Charlie and Andy end up on the run. And then ... the movie just sort of ends. To be fair, "Firestarter" is not exactly one of King's best books, nor is it one of his sprawling tomes that spans thousands of pages. But there's definitely plenty of material to work with, and the new "Firestarter" doesn't seem interested in that. Again: you get the distinct impression that this is a secret TV pilot, and that everyone involved is saving stuff for the series, should it get picked up. 

Here's the thing: the previous "Firestarter" movie, starring Drew Barrymore, wasn't very good, to begin with. This new take on the material is a bit more successful. But that's not really saying much. There are occasional bursts of life, like a sequence where Charlie more or less Bourne Identities herself into The Shop. And there are more than a few gnarly, nasty moments showing hideous burns that are the result of Charlie's power. Blanketing all of this is a killer, propulsive score from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies (honestly, the score is the best part of the whole movie). "Firestarter" isn't offensively bad. It's not likely to make you angry, or have you calling it the worst dang thing you've ever seen. But it is aggressively average, bordering on mediocre. There's nothing fiery here. It's lukewarm at best.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10