With each subsequent adaptation, there’s hope that a story will improve on the previous version – or at least feel like it offers a unique vision, an extra layer that makes the new adaptation purposeful as it insists on treading old ground . Regardless of critical assessment, the other day King Readjustments It (2017), It: Chapter 2 (2019) and pet cemetery (2019) all did. They felt like films that had a clear vision of what they were trying to achieve. But the new adaptation of fire starter, directed by Keith Thomas, has no idea what it wants to be and vacillates wildly between goals over the course of its all-too-short run. Is that half of a 2003 TV movie? Is this an extended pilot for a TV series? Is this just a means of protecting rights? What it most certainly isn’t, to put it bluntly, is a film that captures even a little bit of King’s novel.
The 1984 release fire starter, starring Drew Barrymore, is no masterpiece, although it evokes a degree of nostalgia for its blend of folksy Americana and Cold War paranoia. It happens to be, at least structurally, one of the King adaptations that most closely resembles its source material. This film is directed by a filmmaker, Mark L. Lester, who would prove more successful with action than horror. All the more surprising is Thomas, whose low-budget Blumhouse debut the guard chilled audience with an effective sense of dread manages to make this new horror thriller film so devoid of any tension or stakes.
fire starter starts off strong as Andy McGee (Zac Efron) dreams of his young child bursting into flames. It’s a shocking shock, followed by opening credits covering flashbacks to Lot 6’s experimental studies, which augmented the latent psychic abilities of patients, including Andy and his later wife, Vicky (Sydney Lemmon). Most test subjects go insane, pluck out their eyeballs, and scream in agony. As for prologues, it’s a sparse use of storytelling that whets the appetite for what’s to come. It’s a shame the rest of the film can never match that energy.
The story begins with 11-year-old Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) struggling to contain her pyrokinetic powers. She’s the odd kid at school, portrayed with shades of King’s other famous psychic, Carrie White. Her parents don’t allow her to use the internet or cell phones so they can’t be tracked, leaving her a Luddite outcast among her peers. While Charlie’s mother, Vicky, has largely given up using her telekinetic powers, Andy uses his telepathy as a self-help guru for addicts. But there is tension between Andy and Vicky over how to raise Charlie. Vicky thinks she needs to train to learn how to control it. Andy, meanwhile, believes she needs to repress, citing how his own use of powers has begun causing cerebral hemorrhage – in the form of blood dripping from his eyes. Neat trick, and admittedly a more terrifying choice than the nosebleeds in the original version. The pair’s arguments over what to do with Charlie and her powers are repetitive, and much time is spent playing the same beats. The actors do their best with screenwriter Scott Teems’ limited, explanatory dialogue, but it’s hard not to feel your eyelids grow heavier.
Just when it seems like things aren’t going to bounce back, Charlie gets angry at her parents for what they’ve made of her – a monster, she says – and in a fit of rage she sets her mother’s arms on fire. Andy, refusing to call 911, bandages up his wife’s severe burns and, at Vicky’s urging, goes for ice cream with Charlie to cool her off, as one does. Charlie confesses to her father that she wanted to set him on fire instead. This is at the heart of an interesting idea, a shift in the devotion Charlie has for her father in the novel and ’84 film. But nothing really comes of it, and the film doesn’t give Efron a chance to explore that reaction. Andy is led to offer platitudes about not hurting things and people and the cost of using such powers, but there’s little sense of connection between the two.
The Shop, the government agency behind the Los 6 trial, sets out to capture Charlie. The agency’s director, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben), burdened with the film’s worst dialogue, sends in retired agent John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to catch Charlie. She also meets with Dr. Wanless (Kurtwood Smith), who directed the Lot 6 experiments, and asks him to come back – then he’s never seen again for the rest of the film. Rainbird kills Vicky, and Andy and Charlie react so little to her death it’s almost comical. Even Rainbird, who gains telekinetic powers of his own in this iteration, seems fairly uninvolved in the whole situation.
Rainbird is one of King’s most terrifying villains, and his obsession with Charlie in the novel feels both religious and pedophilic. there’s just a perverse sense of uneasiness it creates. Greyeyes doing bone dry work True detective Season 3, blood quantityand Wild Indian, really not much presence is given here. Too bad, because the woefully miscast George C. Scott had a lot more work to do in the ’84 version (while awkwardly posing as an Indian). That fire starter attempts to paint Rainbird in a sympathetic light, revealing that he was a “lab rat” for Lot 6’s early experiments and employed as an agent by the government, a potentially interesting plot that takes the novel’s Vietnam War story through the scientific Abuses by American replaces natives. But like so many things in this film, that door remains locked, and Rainbird feels more like a plot device than a character.
Charlie and Andy go on the run, but in a way with very little urgency that makes the film’s budget clear. Filmed behind warehouses and lacking in extras, this deserted world is made even more boring by its procedural, no-nonsense CBS visuals. After resting on a farm that has its own ridiculously unnecessary subplot, Andy is captured, but Charlie escapes and makes his way to The Shop via her psychic link. Charlie also has telekinesis and telepathy, which is very much treated as an “oh, by the way” plot device as the film strays further and further from the novel. There’s no real idea how long it takes Charlie to get to The Shop – it could be the next day or weeks later. When we see Andy again, he has a beard and the plausibility of an already unbelievable scenario begins to sink under the weight of it all.
Somehow the third act starts with 10 minutes left in the film; Charlie meets Hollister for the first time, the antagonist of the whole story. Trying to save her father, Charlie sets some unconvincing shop agents on fire and uses even more telepathy alongside her pyrokinetic powers. It has to be said that this film’s flames always obviously come from a flamethrower in the least creative way. There’s also not enough blood or burn to earn his R rating. But at least there are a few purple and blue neon lights in The Shop’s mostly empty concrete corridors, perhaps to try to impress some ’80s nostalgia stranger things kinship with the audience. There is no escalation here, no huge fireballs raining down chaos and destroying helicopters and the foundations of The Shop. The movie just burns out, though it’s always just a flicker, with a sequel-bait ending that feels like a misjudgment in every way.
The best that can be said about this new iteration of fire starter is that it at least gave us a new score John Zimmerman, Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies. The rest feels like a waste of a talented cast and crew who, against all odds, somehow make the 1984 film seem like an amazing achievement in the King adaptation space.