Producers: Jason Blum and Akiva Goldsman Director: Keith Thomas Screenplay: Scott Teems Cast: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Sydney Lemmon, Kurtwood Smith, John Beasley, Michael Greyeyes and Gloria Reuben Distributor: Universal Pictures
The most interesting thing about this second filmization of Stephen King’s 1980 novel is that its music score was composed by John Carpenter along with his son Cody and Daniel A. Davies. It’s not a particularly good score, sounding pretty much like a recycling of the synthesizer efforts Carpenter fashioned for his own pictures many year ago, but it causes one to recollect that Carpenter was originally scheduled to direct the first version of the book, but was replaced by Mark L. Lester. The resultant 1984 movie was a particularly weak King screen adaptation (its score was by Tangerine Dream); this one is worse. But at least the Carpenter connection can provide grist for trivia collections. While the title promises something explosive, this damp squib of movie will sink quickly, and deservedly, into oblivion.
The book has been boiled down to the simplest terms by Scott Teems (“The Quarry,” “Halloween Kills”). Young couple Andy and Vicky McGee (Zac Efron and Sydney Lemmon) receive a hallucinogenic drug as part of an experiment, and develop psychic powers—his telepathic (he refers to them as “the push,” and hers telekinetic). But they pale beside the pyrokinetic ability with which their daughter Charlie is born.
Realizing that the girl will become a focus of governmental interest as a potential weapon, the couple goes on the run, and elude the shadowy department called the Shop headed by Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) for a decade until Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is enraged with a bullying classmate at school and causes a conflagration in a restroom. That alerts Hollister who sends agent to capture the child. In the attempt they kill Vicky, but Andy and Charlie escape.
Hollister consults the former head of the experiments (Kurtwood Smith, underused in a cameo in which he merely fumes about the damage Charlie might do) and sends John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), the bounty hunter supreme, to catch her and bring her in for training. He finds them at a farm where they’ve been taken in by Irv Manders (John Beasley), and after disposing of the police who’ve gotten there first, captures Andy while Charlie escapes.
Hollister then uses Andy to entice Charlie to the Shop’s compound, while she uses her own “push” to secure a bicycle and get there. A fiery confrontation occurs, with a couple of survivors forming an unlikely bond at its close.
The overall mediocrity and tedium of this new “Firestarter” are quite astounding. Teems has reduced King’s much more complicated, if uninspired narrative (the book was, after all, never more than a prepubescent variant of “Carrie”) to the barest of bones and provided the result with insipid dialogue, and Keith Thomas directs with a leaden hand; even the action scenes and effects have minimal impact. Technically it’s totally bland, with an indifferent production design (Zosia Mackenzie) and undistinguished cinematography (Karim Hussein), as well as torpid editing by Timothy Alverson, which makes the ninety-minute running-time feel far longer.
The performances are tepid. In his last few outings Efron has shown little hint of the charisma he once exuded, and this dull turn merely cements the change. Reuben and Greyeyes are sadly one-note, while Lemmon hasn’t much opportunity to go beyond rote maternal concern before expiring and Beasley tries way too hard to give genial farmer Manders some colorful tics. As for Armstrong, she seems a pleasant enough young girl, but as in the recent “Red Tide” series of “American Horror Story: Double Feature,” doesn’t bring a lot of personality to Charlie, though she screams well. Cat lovers might want to be forewarned that there’s an encounter with a feline that scratches Charlie that does not turn out happily for the tabby.
At one point in “Firestarter,” Hollister remarks of her botched operation, “I’d hoped this would have gone better.” Don’t we all.