Director(s): Keith Thomas
Writer(s): Scott Teems
Cast: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon
Stephen King might be one of the best authors, especially in the horror realm, of all time. His books have transcended time, and constantly put fear into the minds of people who dare to open them. So, it’s no wonder why there is well over 100 film/tv adaptations of his material since Carrie in 1976.
Firestarter is the newest Stephen King book brought to life – for the second time, the first was made in 1984 and starred Drew Barrymore – and tells the story of Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) as she struggles to understand the powers she was given at birth. Charlie along with her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) have to evade an organization that wants to control Charlie’s powers that let her set objects on fire with her mind.
In today’s day in age, superhero films are all buzz, and all the cash. If you want to have a blockbuster film, it likely needs to be involving or about a group of heroes with extraordinary powers. With Firestarter, it is easy to see that the goal was to capitalize on not only the recent superhero success, but the recent Stephen King successes with films like It Chapter 1 and 2 and Doctor Sleep. However, along the way this film never fully understands what it wants to be, and tonally can never find a landing spot between horror and superhero action.
This lack of understanding bleeds onto the screen as this film poorly weaves its way through genres. The film puts you right into the McGee’s life, and throughout it is never fully explained how these powers started and why. Few moments show that they could have been done through medical experimentation, but it also explains that they could have had it their whole lives. Sitting at just around an hour and a half, the movie has to move fast to get everything in, but the things in the story that were overlooked might have been some of the most important elements overall.
Tonally, in one moment the film seems to be a family-on-the-run action film, and in the next moment there will be a full switch to horror that never feels planned or earned. Which being a King adaptation, there should have been more of an emphasis on the horror elements. They already had the R rating, and they had fleeting moments that could have worked, but the back and forth between what the film was trying to say and do never could quite match up.
Zac Efron is back in his first major role since 2019, and while the movie never quite worked, it was good to see him return to the screen. Efron is committed, and you can see that in his performance; it’s just a shame the film around him wasn’t. In each scene the pain his character is facing can be shown through Efron’s subtle notions, reminding us all there is a good actor underneath the chisled body.
The ending of this film is a little confusing, and deviates from the book in a major way. I can tell there is a statement trying to be made, but the subtleties of what the filmmakers were going for were never set up, and never fully realized, leaving me with more questions at the end – and not the good kind. It feels like one of those things that works much better on paper than on screen.
Which ultimately, what Firestarter should be more than anything is just that, a reminder that not all Stephen King novels should be adapted. There are some that are better left in the confines of words on a page, and some of the horrors probably work better that way. There were some fun and campy moments – whether those were intentional or not, I still am not sure – and Zac Efron was fully committed to the role, but this film never could find its footing, or even its legs for that matter. Instead of starting a fire, this one could barely produce a spark.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.