Firestarter (2022) Review: A hot start, but ultimately flames out
Blumhouse’s adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic 1980 novel, Firestarter, showcases some strengths in establishing the horror of the story, but mostly flames out when it comes to its characters.
The film follows parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) as they attempt to protect their daughter Charlie (Ryan Keira Armstrong), who possess explosive pyrokinesis abilities, from a secret government agency looking to use her powers for destructive means. Firestarter actually gets off to a hot start in establishing a distinct horror tone to the film. With a director like Keith Thomas, who had a breakout debut with The Vigil, helming, Firestarter features some solid horror visuals right from the opening credits.
The mix of sci-fi and horror are clear as day with the infrared aesthetics of the opening credits as well as the secretive video interviews that play to establish Andy and Vicky’s backstories of being runaway subjects of a lab experiment. Not to mention, John Carpenter delivers another amazing synth-heavy score that’s undoubtedly one of the big highlights of the film. Thomas’ direction also helps give Charlie powers, as well as Andy’s, some dark realism with how the destructive force of their powers is shown. Andy’s telepathy is captivating every time it’s shown as Efron adds some strong believability with his performance and the sequences focused on it show it to be a very effective and destructive tool. Although Andy tries to use it just for survival, Thomas never forgets to show the darker side of Andy’s use of it, and it adds some complex and intriguing shades to his character. Also, the way that Andy’s eye bleed more and more after he uses his ability is creepy as hell.
Charlie’s ability is also excellently utilized by Thomas to create some strong visual horrors, including a wildly destructive finale. Through some of the very raw moments of Charlie using her power on living things, the idea of her having to take control of her power is instantly clear since seeing the burns and horrors she can cause with her outbursts is incredibly disturbing. It’s legitimately scary to see Charlie in full force and it greatly establishes the dangers of what she can cause and the end sequence that sees her fully unleashed leaves you shook.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t establish its characters or wider story as well as it does its style. The initial family dynamic is nice with there being some good wholesomeness and care between everyone as well as some understandable panic and conflict between Andy and Vicky as Charlie’s powers become more prominent. Efron and Lemmon’s performances help with making viewers invested in this dynamic and Armstrong’s performance is equally as strong. Armstrong brings a good emotional range as Charlie as she struggles to balance her emotions amongst the chaotic situation she finds herself in, and this along with Armstrong’s great performance in American Horror Story: Red Tide already show her as a breakout talent in the horror genre.
These strengths don’t last though as the film rushes through its story way too fast and doesn’t really allow for Andy and Charlie’s relationship or personal arcs to grow. Charlie is barely even taught how to use or control her powers, yet she feels totally in grasp of everything in the finale and it would’ve been nice to have more of her and Andy on the run. Outside of its main family, Firestarter has a weird assortment of side characters that only stand out because of how awkward the performances are and they’re lack of depth. Whenever the film focuses on main antagonist Hollister (Gloria Reuben) or a man that Andy and Charlie come across named Irv (John Beasley), it totally fails to establish them as meaningful characters and they often have awkward lines that muddy up the tone.
Honestly, there are a lot of line deliveries and lines, in general, that are so awkward that they come off unintentionally funny. It’s really tough to get a read on Irv or Hollister because of this and Hollister might be one of the most boring and unmemorable antagonists in a King movie. Even worse is how the film does nothing with Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) but tries to make him seem impactful. Greyeyes’ performance is on-point making Rainbird a dark and foreboding bounty hunter, but the writing for the character is incredibly thin as his backstory and motivations leave no impact and his part in the ending doesn’t feel earned. The entire ending is actually super forced, and it almost feels like the film is trying to cover up its lackluster and rushed conclusions with complete destruction.
Although Firestarter has the makings of a strong King horror adaptation, it more often comes off underwhelming with what it doesn’t accomplish with its characters and story leaving a mostly hollow film with some visually enticing horrors that slightly salvage the experience.