Review: ‘Firestarter’ remake fails to ignite

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Ryan Kiera Armstrong in a scene from "Firestarter." (Universal Pictures via AP)
The Associated Press

For a movie about a girl with pyrokinetic powers, “ Firestarter ” is lacking a certain spark.

This new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel is not scary or thrilling, nor is it emotionally resonant or particularly moving. No, this outing is a dull slog, even with its cool, synthy John Carpenter score and the should’ve-been-inspired decision to cast Zac Efron as the father of the flame-throwing preteen.

But “Firestarter” might not have had much to live up to in the first place. The 1984 film, which starred Drew Barrymore and David Keith as the daughter-father pair, was not exactly well-received. Roger Ebert wrote that its “crucial flaw is the lack of a strong point to the story. A little girl has her dangerous power, some government agents want to examine her, others want to destroy her, and things catch on fire. That’s about it.” The original source material isn’t one of King’s most beloved either.

Why anyone would want to resurrect this particular property is a bit of a mystery, beyond the fact that some might have a misplaced fondness for it because they saw it at an impressionable age. One of the best things that can be said about this iteration, written by Scott Teems and directed by Keith Thomas, is that it neither adds nor subtracts anything from “Firestarter’s” lackluster history (though it does jettison the pedophile undertones of a crucial character). But on the whole, it just once again takes something that should be creepy and thrilling and makes it dreary.

Ryan Kiera Armstrong takes on the role of Charlie, who is a bit of an introvert and a social outcast in her school. She’s not allowed to have a phone or the Internet, and she’s been told by her father to simply repress her scary fire-starting powers. But questions are rising (hormones too) and there’s jerks and bullies around too and the fire comes out at inopportune times. The mom, Vicky, played by Sydney Lemmon (who is Jack Lemmon’s granddaughter), thinks it’d be better to teach the kid how to use the powers instead of abstaining completely, but she’s overruled and pretty soon, it’s just Andy (Efron) and Charlie on the run.

Andy and Vicky aren’t just befuddled parents of a fire-starting 11-year-old, either: They have personal experience too. A grainy reel at the start informs us that they were subjected to some secret government testing while in college and came out with powers of their own. And it’s these officials, led by Captain Hollister (played by Gloria Reuben, who is given the worst lines in the script), who are interested in acquiring Charlie. So Hollister calls a former test subject, Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), to go find her.

Armstrong has a great scream and a nice presence, but she isn’t given much of a character to latch on to. Based on how pristine her inexplicably barrel-curled hair looks for most of the film, though, it seems that those in charge might have been more concerned with the aesthetics than the performance.

The same could be said for the rest of the movie, which feels like mummified homage. There is nothing to latch on to that might make us care even the tiniest bit about the plight of this family, the poor souls caught in the crossfire, or even the bureaucrats who fancy themselves the good guys.

Perhaps we’ve just seen too many better homages at this point, “Stranger Things” among them. There wasn’t a great reason to take another shot at “Firestarter.” Besides, even if it’s lacking in originality, it’s also lacking something even more important: A personality.

“Firestarter,” a Universal Pictures release now in theaters and on Peacock+, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violent content.” Running time: 96 minutes. One star out of four.