If you forced an extremely smart AI to watch 1,000 direct-to-VOD horror movies, then asked it to generate one of its own, you’d end up with something that resembles the worst Blumhouse fare from the past decade. Repeat that process 999 more times and show those movies to the same AI, and you’ll probably get “Firestarter.”
To call Universal’s take on the Stephen King novel generic would be an insult to generic cinema everywhere, as the film’s inability to make a single distinct choice is almost impressive. A Stephen King book about a kid who starts fires should be a B-movie producer’s dream. An adaptation of the pulpy novel might not be good, but one would think it would at least be entertaining.
Yet director Keith Thomas and writer Scott Teems found a way to turn the fun source material into a lethargic parenting drama that’s completely devoid of warmth. What should be an intense chase movie is essentially 90 minutes of Zac Efron and his daughter hanging out in rooms lit like a senior citizen’s kitchen before their adult kid opens the blinds.
Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is a little girl who, as savvy literary minds could probably deduce from the title, starts a lot of fires. It began when she was a baby, engulfing her mobile in flames while she squirmed in her crib. The memory haunts her father Andy (Zac Efron, going against type as a suburban dad), who still has nightmares about the incident.
Charlie is in elementary school now, but the problem hasn’t gone away. When she gets frustrated or angry, she involuntarily causes fiery explosions. Although her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) hates that term, thinking it makes her daughter sound like a terrorist. Andy and Vicky have tried to control Charlie’s condition, teaching her breathing exercises to calm herself down when she’s tempted to start a fire. But she gets older and more powerful with each passing day, and Vicky is convinced the status quo can’t be sustained.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
As it turns out, both Andy and Vicky have superpowers of their own. She can move objects with her mind, and he has something called “the push” that allows him to hypnotize people with his eyes. Years ago, they were both test subjects in a top-secret government program who escaped from custody after their daughter was born. Charlie was never supposed to leave a government lab, but they snuck her out and have lived as fugitives ever since, keeping her away from cell phones and wifi so they can’t be tracked. To Andy, these powers are problems to be managed, and his goal as a parent is to discourage Charlie from using them. Vicky sees it differently, believing that Charlie needs training to properly utilize her gifts.
To his credit, Efron gives the “sexy dad” role his best effort. But there’s only so much he can do when the script gives him so little to work with. It seems like every time he opens his mouth, one of two things comes out: a paragraph of clunky exposition or a “joke” about how little he understands female puberty. “Firestarter” includes multiple scenes where Zac Efron points out that his daughter is about to get her period, and he has no clue what the hell that entails.
When the comically evil government agency that put the family in this predicament learns about their location, inactivity is no longer an option. A hitman sent for Charlie ends up killing Vicky, leading Andy to take her on the lam. A movie allegedly about fires becomes a father-daughter hitchhiking story told through an endless series of bland shots that resemble B-roll from an insurance commercial.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
That’s the film’s most damning issue. For a movie about two fugitives with superpowers being hunted by the government, the pacing could not be more relaxed. Andy and Charlie may be “on the run,” but they’re mostly just meandering. They leisurely wander around the rural East Coast without any sense of urgency, taking 15-minute detours to hang out and eat sandwiches at some old guy’s house. (Although to be fair, that excursion results in a touching moment when Charlie asks to play with his chickens, and the man lovingly responds “just watch out for the turds” while inspirational music plays). The government scientists supposedly pursuing them never make any visible progress. When a cable news segment tries to remind the audience that there’s a nationwide manhunt going on, it’s exactly that: news to us.
Fine, you might say, “Firestarter” eschews excitement in favor of father-daughter bonding time. What tender parenting moments do we get to witness?
Andy uses most of the time on the road with his daughter to impart his worldview that murder is essentially fine. He tells her a touching story about how, when she was a baby, the government tried to take her away and he killed the two agents who came to collect her. Soon after, when Charlie uses her powers to torture a cat. Andy stops her and tells her that she now has to put it out of its misery. You started it, you finish it.
Later on, when she finds herself torturing a human, Charlie verbally recalls her father’s advice and kills the guy. You’d be forgiven for assuming that was all a setup for an eventual learning moment where Charlie realizes that killing is wrong. But no, the film’s main parenting message is that the same logic should apply to both taking human lives and finishing the last bite of meatloaf on your plate.
If there’s one unequivocally good thing about “Firestarter,” it’s that viewers watching the film on Peacock (it’s day-and-date in theaters and on NBCUniversal’s streaming platform) can easily scroll through their phones for long periods of time without missing anything important. In fact, that’s probably the best way to watch it. “Firestarter” lulls you into a false sense of security before the film’s biggest jump scare, which occurs when the credits roll, and you’re reminded that people were paid actual money to make it.
“Firestarter” is now playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.