Directed by Keith Thomas.
Starring Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron, Sydney Lemmon, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Greyeyes, Gloria Reuben, John Beasley, Tina Jung, Hannan Younis, Gavin Maciver-Wright, Sheila Boyd, and Jamillah Ross.
A girl with extraordinary pyrokinetic powers fights to protect her family and herself from sinister forces that seek to capture and control her.
Stephen King is such a rich storyteller in terms of characterization that whenever watching one of the several cinematic adaptations of his work, it’s immediately evident when those characters are stripped down of any complexity and to their basics.
Directed by Keith Thomas (his second full-length feature following under the radar horror debut The Vigilwhich is a hell of a lot more worth checking out than this) and written by Scott Teems (partially responsible for last year’s Halloween Killswhich only makes it easier to single him out as more to blame for this generic remake treatment), fire starter doesn’t even feel like a fully formed, complete movie. As such, there are characters here that don’t even serve a purpose, in addition to much of their backstory, details, and layers ripped away.
There’s an early montage showing the voluntary experiments from The Shop (specifically the effects of a drug dubbed Lot Six), headed up by Kurtwood Smith’s Dr. Joseph Wanless, who I can only hope transformed into his beloved That 70s Show sitcom character Red Forman and asked if everyone was on dope while shooting this. Jokes aside, that montage is a blur of images lacking horror, suspense, and vision.
That somewhat sums up fire starter, but with dated special effects and nonsense action sequences; at one point, someone is set on fire inside a car, except the flames don’t burn up the vehicle itself. And if you think the filmmakers will go all out creating an indestructible pyrokinetic force, bad news because all it takes is some flame retardant attire to render those powers useless (even when the film has shown other devastating abilities that our protagonist could use in this situation ).
I don’t enjoy picking apart logic like that during set-pieces, especially from a horror-action movie called fire starter, but some movies just wear the brain down until it’s mush. Coincidentally, Zac Efron’s Andy McGee suffers from brain bleeding whenever he deploys telepathic manipulation powers that emerge from Lot Six intake. I can only assume Zac Efron himself went through something similar onset, feeling the potential slip away from each scene shot.
Andy lives off the grid with his wife Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) and 11-year-old daughter Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, an unfortunate situation for a child actor to be in, let down by everyone and everything surrounding her). But before going any further, please tell me who the hell would choose “McGee” as their fake name while hiding from the mysterious government agency known as The Shop (I’m aware the names are unchanged from the original adaptation and novel, but it’s still goofy). I would also love to tell you more about The Shop, but all I can say is that the film swaps between three or four different villainous characters, barely defining any motives beyond studying powers for nefarious purposes.
Nevertheless, Andy and Vicky are aware that their daughter Charlie can materialize fire, essentially holding untapped power stronger than anything they are capable of individually. In a metaphor for puberty (similar to the novel and other Stephen King novels such as career), Charlie is losing control holding her powers inside. Her little tricks to maintain control (focusing on random objects in the room) no longer works. The bullying at school is also getting slightly more intense, leading to an explosive incident. Why Charlie would even be enrolled in public school if the goal is to stay hidden is beyond me, especially since the parents already go out of their way to forbid her from using computers and cell phones. And about that metaphor? forget it; nothing worthwhile comes of it.
Anyway, The Shop calls in superpowered hitman Rainbird (hey, at least the role went to an indigenous actor this time, although Michael Greyeyes doesn’t exactly have much to work with) to collect Charlie since the school incident exposed her location. Meanwhile, Andy argues that Charlie’s powers must continue to be locked away (he doesn’t want her to feel the pain they require to use), while Vicky feels it’s time to embrace them and teach her how to use them responsibly. The way this review sounds, you might be shocked to learn that this first act is decent if we are going off of the standards of the rest of the movie. It’s utterly confounding, but at least minimal characters discuss a problem, and there’s a family dynamic to latch onto.
Following the family’s first encounter with Rainbird, any embers of positivity in fire starter go up in smoke. There’s already questionable acting from everyone involved by this point (I genuinely have no idea what the hell Kurtwood Smith is doing with his performance), but it somehow gets worse to the point where a scene involving a murdered cat is unintentionally funny. Even if Scott Teem’s script was rewritten, it’s not like the CGI is polished enough to induce unease or scar the viewer.
from there, fire starter introduces more characters, doesn’t do much with already established characters (no one even mourns a critical character’s death, although, at least for this one, it could be argued that there isn’t time to do so), and Keith Thomas fails to do anything remotely exciting or visually captivating with pyrokinesis. Most of the time, it results in holding back laughter at cheesy and unconvincing effects.
Admittedly, there is a level of competent craftsmanship here, especially from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies’ serviceable pounding synthetic score, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong is trying her best to ignite a spark. However, fire starter doesn’t crackle.
Flickering Myth Rating – Movie: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com