Did we really need a new take on Stephen King’s 1980 novel? fire starter? The 1984 film, starring Drew Barrymore, was quite compelling, like most early King films, if not particularly exceptional or memorable. (Aside from the utterly unfortunate casting of “red-faced” George C. Scott as the Native American government hitman, eh, yikes!) And some might recall that John Carpenter was originally set to direct this first adaptation of King’s story, a young girl with a penchant for psychokinetic pyrotechnics, but was removed from the project due to underperformance the thing. (The job eventually went to Mark L. Lester.)
Well, the good news first: Carpenter’s inclusion in this version – he composed an original score with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davis – could be viewed as a sort of regret for that earlier act of blasphemy. As for the bad news? See: the rest of the film.
The story stays the same. Andy McGee (Zac Efron) and his wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) met in college as test subjects in an FDA clinical trial that turned out to be a government experiment on a mind-altering chemical compound. (The Administrative Authority, a shadowy operation called “The Shop,” appears in a handful of King works.) As a result, both Andy and Vicky have telekinetic and telepathic abilities, which they passed on to their daughter, Charlie (newcomer Ryan Keira Armstrong). And as the title suggests, she can also use her mind to start fire.
The agency sends John Rainbird (luckily played this time by a real Native American, actor Michael Greyeyes) to capture Charlie, killing Vicky in the process. father and daughter go on the run; They barely last a day before he’s captured. But the duo have a “psychic connection,” meaning Charlie, on a mission to rescue their father, and spend about a minute and a half of screen time in the woods like some kind of Yoda-less Skywalker, training themselves to use their fire power properly. Then she goes to get him.
fire starter gets off to a strong start – there’s an inspired opening sequence with spooky footage from the experiment, some thoughtful questions about parental responsibility (did they make Charlie hide their power or learn to use it?), and a Runs on empty Aspect of the family’s stop-and-go lifestyle. From there, however, director Keith Thomas and screenwriter Scott Teems tear away much of the original narrative and most of its stakes. The lean, mean Blumhouse approach that’s usually so effective leaves the picture feeling half-baked – and the big climax, which was meant to come across as gangbuster, feels like it was shot over a three-day weekend at someone’s dad’s factory been.
Efron is quite good, quietly present and downplaying the role. Armstrong does her best in a largely impossible role. Kurtwood Smith comes off best as the original administrator of the drug; the veteran character actor (Robocop, Society of Dead Poets) seems to understand that his scenes require the dial to be set to “completely out of joint” at all times. As for Gloria Reuben, who was cast as the baddest of bad villains, she’s saddled with the clunkiest exhibition dialogue — including the second-biggest groan-worthy line, “You’re a real superhero” — and she’s misperforming it. (The scariest line for those keeping track is Charlie’s climax, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”) The effects are dodgy and unconvincing. The emotional investment is zero. The running time is only 94 minutes, proving that there is indeed a gracious higher power. It’s still a four alert disaster.