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The clumsy new Firestarter adaptation does one major thing better than the 1984 original

Zac Efron stars in a new adaptation of Stephen King’s sci-fi horror novel, but Michael Greyeyes is the standout

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Zac Efron isn’t terrible in Peacock’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel Firestarter, but he is distracting. Every once in a while, while watching it, the thought appears unbidden, as if it was placed by one of the film’s psychic protagonists: Oh yeah, Zac Efron is in this. As with the 1984 film version of Firestarter — widely acknowledged as one of the worst King adaptations — the cast and crew of the 2022 Firestarter features names that seem too high-profile for this particular project. Where the new version actually surpasses the ’84 movie is that in this case, at least a couple of those names deliver.

Efron stars alongside Sydney Lemmon (Helstrom, Fear the Walking Dead) and Ryan Kiera Armstrong (Anne with an E, Black Widow) as Andy McGee, patriarch of a small clan burdened with destructive psychic powers coveted by a CIA-esque government agency known as the DSI. Andy can psychically “push” people into doing things, a skill he’s using to cure nicotine addictions for cash in an early scene. Vicky (Lemmon) refuses to use her ill-defined powers at all. And their young daughter, Charlie (Armstrong), treats her pyrokinetic abilities like a mental illness, using breathing exercises and self-soothing techniques to keep them at bay.

King’s novel and the 1984 film both start in medias res, after DSI agents finally track down the McGee family and force Andy and Charlie to go on the run. The 2022 Firestarter backs up to the moment where Charlie’s powers begin to reemerge so Scott Teems’ embarrassing screenplay can explain some things. Teems also wrote 2021’s disappointing Halloween Kills, and Firestarter similarly suffers from crude exposition and convoluted themes. (Much like Halloween Kills, this film apparently can’t decide whether murder is bad.) The 2022 Firestarter’s dialogue is laughably insipid, a real baloney sandwich on white bread that only the most skilled members of the film’s cast — namely, Kurtwood Smith in a small role as a regretful government researcher and Michael Greyeyes as superpowered DSI assassin Rainbird — can make sound halfway decent.

Greyeyes in particular is a highlight. He’s good in everything, to be fair, and this movie really doesn’t deserve him. (The fact that this time around, Rainbird, a Cherokee character, is actually played by a Native actor rather than George C. Scott in brownface, is one point in the remake’s column.) When Rainbird is striding around with great purpose and throwing objects around the room with his mind, Greyeyes makes him an antihero to root for. And once Charlie (though maybe not the script) fully grasps the puberty metaphor and turns her blossoming powers into a coming-of-age moment, she’s a hoot as well.

That can’t be said for the rest of the cast, who are plopped onto the proverbial iceberg and pushed out to sea in those moments where they have to deliver more than one line of dialogue at a time. Generally, the 2022 Firestarter is pretty okay when no one is talking. The practical telekinetic and fire effects are dramatic and professionally executed. And in spite of some truly baffling color grading in the first half of the film, director Keith Thomas does show a bit of low-budget flair during the climactic pyromaniacal showdown. (That being said, it’s underwhelming compared to the cocaine-decade excess of the 1984 film’s ending. Score one for the original version.)

Zac Efron in Firestarter, standing outside in front of a house with an open, burning doorway Photo: Universal PIctures

In another highlight, John Carpenter and his son/bandmate Cody wrote the score for the new Firestarter, a reflection of Carpenter’s willingness to work on movies as long as he can just do the fun parts, then back to watching basketball. (This Blumhouse production also shares quite a few behind-the-scenes personnel with the rebooted Halloween franchise, further explaining the Carpenters’ presence on the project.) No matter how hard other people may try, no one can compose an uncanny-yet-catchy synth line like the man himself. Much as with Greyeyes, this movie probably doesn’t deserve John Carpenter, but it does benefit from his involvement.

Firestarter predates the 2010s wave of “elevated” superhero movies — in fact, the S-word doesn’t appear in the ’84 version at all. (Here, sadly, it is uttered, albeit quite late in the film.) And to be clear, neither of the Firestarter films are competing on the same level as movies like Fast Color or Midnight Special, both of which share elements with this horror-ish, paranoid sci-fi thriller. But sometimes in the world of remakes and Stephen King adaptations — and especially when the two overlap — “quality” can become awfully relative. Firestarter 2022 is a marginal improvement on the ’84 original, if only because it has a handful of redeeming qualities rather than virtually none at all.

Firestarter is currently in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

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