Not even Zac Efron and a killer John Carpenter score can light up this damp Stephen King adaptation.
Did you leave the gas on? Or does this movie stink? I’ll be here all week, folks.
The scariest thing about Keith Thomas’s new adaptation of the Stephen King novel might be that Zac Efron is now considered old enough to play a dad. That’s not to say there aren’t glimmers of an exciting adaptation here. A few notable performances, some truly hilarious moments of things (or more accurately, their obvious puppets) bursting into flames, and a score from John Carpenter that–, for lack of a better word–positively fucks. But everything in between these points of light is as exciting as an untoasted cheese sandwich.
Charlie McGee (Ryan Keira Armstrong) is a girl trying to survive the modern world without the benefit of WiFi, much to the concern of her teacher and the derision of her classmates.
At home, she’s comforted by dad Andy (Efron) and mom Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) who help her with breathing exercises and other tools to help stave off a panic attack. Because when Charlie has panic attacks, things get heated.
All it takes is one bad day to put her on the radar of The Shop, a shadowy branch of the government tasked with studying people with special abilities. Charlie isn’t just any little girl, but the offspring of two of The Shop’s previous subjects who have been on the lam since escaping. Vicky has a telekinetic ability she almost never uses, while Andy has the ability to “push” people to do his bidding. They both know from firsthand experience what The Shop and its unhinged director Captain Hollister (played with manic, unblinking glee by Gloria Reuben) will do to a kid like Charlie. Further complicating matters, Hollister dispatches former super-soldier Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) who develops a weird obsession with Charlie that is never fully or satisfactorily explained.
While everything leading up to their first confrontation with Rainbird is standard thriller fare, it moves along at a good clip and has moments of taut suspense. Unfortunately, everything after that initial showdown is a lifeless slog. Efron, for all his trying, just can’t fully step into the role of America’s new favorite DILF, and too much of the middle action rests on his sculpted shoulders. Armstrong gives a solid young actor performance, but without truly feeling the connection to her parents or her desire for a normal life (something that is barely touched on in the film) there isn’t enough there there.
That’s when the third act bursts in like Kramer opening a door. After such a dragging middle, it’s an abrupt shift into high gear as Charlie takes on The Shop herself. I won’t spoil the ending, but if Charlie had an online store she’d be selling shirts that say “I burned down The Shop and all I got was this new dad.” Charlie’s attack on The Shop bears some delightful carnage, but even that feels too little, too late.
Some of the film’s more interesting moments revolve around Rainbird, and Michael Greyeyes gives the most compelling performance. Also, after being played by both George C. Scott and Malcolm MacDowell, it’s high time there was an indigenous actor filling the role of John Rainbird. Kurtwood Smith (always a delight) shows up briefly as Hollister’s candy-obsessed predecessor, and there are flashes of real insanity in Reuben’s campy portrayal of Cap Hollister.
All that aside, I can’t see anyone putting down the $6 Peacock subscription to actually watch this, except for the truly dedicated Stephen King fans. The fact that NBC Universal held screeners back until the last possible moment speaks to Firestarter’s entertainment quotient more than any review ever could. This might actually be the untoasted cheese sandwich of movies. Okay to consume if there’s nothing else in the cupboard.
Firestarter is now in theaters and streaming on Peacock, if you dare.