Adaptations of prolific writer Stephen King go one of two ways. Either they are critically lauded and culturally savoured for years to come, or they’re The Dark Tower. Big, effects-driven movies that capture a grey palette of what King’s writing could be, but probably aren’t. Firestarter enlists the big-budget mentality, more for its cast and modernisation of the text than anything else, and pulls one of the weaker King adaptations out of the bag. Not as unforgivable as his worse works, but there is still constant boredom to this Keith Thomas-directed feature, which has the unsavoury task of trying to bring to life an extremely plain story. Thankfully, Thomas is wise enough to leave The Prodigy off of his soundtrack. Some choices are just too on the nose.
If Brightburn barely managed it, then how is Zac Efron supposed to make headway in the sub-genre of children with psychotic abilities? That may not be a fault for the Efron re-invention though, which so far has been a solid rise and ride away from the High School Musical days. His turn as leading lad Andy McGee is problematic not because he cannot rise to the challenge of dramatic storytelling, but because the adaptation cannot rise to his abilities. He proved his worth in Gold, the film, not a metallic value to be attached to the man that saved 17 Again. It is telling that the best parts of Firestarter feature him in those claustrophobic, tense moments that bring a new layer to the father and daughter dynamic between Andy and Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). Another puzzling problem for Firestarter is that it has all the right components, but no idea what to do with them.
Armstrong is a superb lead alongside Efron, and the two have an excellent back-and-forth, adding context to the family dynamic and the dramatics that can be misconstrued or unfurled as something peculiar. Burning appears to be the everyday part of life for Charlie, although Firestarter tries to deploy tension to every scene. Each moment relies on creeping music, rather than the emotion of the characters or the dynamic writing King surely has on offer. Perhaps that is the issue, though. It is such a vague concept and with no real direction beyond the inherent fear of a child becoming a terrifying murder tool, there is not much else that can be done. Firestarter must have realised that early on after relying so heavily on the John and Cody Carpenter soundtrack.
Even then, it is hard to figure out where Firestarter went wrong. Its tension building is solid, its characters are performed to the best of their abilities and its direction is fine. Sydney Lemmon makes for a great appearance to round out the Efron and Armstrong trio, her first big role since the thankfully forgotten Velvet Buzzsaw. The actual horror, the freakish imagery and the adaptation of King’s work are, as a general pointer, so beyond what King would attempt to create with his imagery. Firestarter has shock value and little of it because audiences will be in on the horror almost immediately. King has a rare ability, and adapting his works is either a great overhaul that changes the twists and turns or a complete, ambitionless slog that hopes to coast by on reputation alone. Firestarter is the latter, but is not without its moments.