Since the release of Paranormal Activity in 2009, Blumhouse Productions has established a reputation as a powerful, if sometimes inconsistent, force in the horror genre. Firestarter does not live up to the legacy of big Blumhouse hits like Get Out. However, it still provides a solid – if extremely underdeveloped – experience with enough potential to make it worth a trip to the theatre.
Like the 1984 film and 1980 Stephen King novel on which it is based, Firestarter follows the journey of young pyrokinetic Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) as she flees an evil government agency known as The Shop. Years prior, Charlie’s parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) participated in The Shop’s scientific experiments, which granted them both supernatural powers. Because of the experiments, their daughter ended up developing powers of her own. Desperate to control or destroy the powerful results of their work, The Shop sets out to capture Charlie and her parents.
The film starts out very strong. Its use of nonlinear storytelling and montage – including a very powerful sequence depicting the horrific experiences of the test subjects at The Shop – creates a jarring and unnerving tone that sets the mood perfectly. Because Andy has premonitions, there is a hint that the film will make it unclear whether any given scene is happening in the present or if it is simply a depiction of one of his visions. The unsettling editing, cinematography, and pacing promise a fear-filled 94 minutes.
Charlie’s experience trying to control her powers is also shown using a surprisingly accurate depiction of how people are taught to respond to panic attacks. You can feel Charlie’s overwhelming stress every time her powers start to stir. A common technique for dealing with anxiety or panic attacks is to ground yourself in the external world around you through sensory connections with objects that you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. The filmmakers clearly did their research, and Armstrong’s depiction of a young girl desperately trying to cling to the external world around her through sensory connections is astounding.
Unfortunately, about 20 minutes into the film, everything that made Firestarter interesting is abandoned. The initially nonlinear structure is tossed in favour of a conventional linear narrative, and the jarring, jerky montage sequences like the one in The Shop are never used again. Charlie goes from having no control over her powers to having perfect control over them almost overnight, so the earlier anxiety metaphor is also completely gone. What remains is a somewhat uninteresting, formulaic film that goes through the motions of a classic “on the run from an evil government organization” narrative without packing any real punch.
The film is particularly disappointing because it establishes so much possibility that it is likely to make viewers long for the film it could have been. In addition to the aforementioned visual, narrative and performance techniques that are abandoned about 20 minutes in, the film also keeps introducing compelling ideas for story details and characters that then never go anywhere.
The film establishes the idea of Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) as the “new guard” leader of The Shop. She claims that she wants to bring The Shop in a new direction, making up for the sins of its past by changing its goals. There is an intriguing premise here about trying to figure out whether Hollister actually wants change or is just “the same problem in a different outfit,” as one character calls her. However, the film does not spend enough time with her for this plot idea to go anywhere.
Similarly, John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) is presented as a promising character. Formerly an experiment of The Shop, he now chooses to use his powers to work for them, killing or kidnapping other former experiments. After meeting Charlie, he gradually shifts allegiances and decides to help her instead of The Shop. This seems like an interesting character journey; unfortunately, it is never really explained why he makes either of these choices. While Greyeyes gives a great performance, the script never explores Rainbird’s motivations, backstory, or mentality in any detail. He simply tries to kidnap Charlie one minute, then helps her escape from The Shop the next, with no real time spent explaining why he does either.
In a market oversaturated with needlessly long films and 3-hour snore fests, it feels strange to say that any film needs to be longer when so many need to be shorter. However, Firestarter is a rare example of a recent film that really could have benefited from an extra 30-45 minutes to flesh out its ideas. Rainbird and Hollister both have so much promise: they are expertly cast and established as interesting characters when first introduced. However, the film never spends enough time with either of them, so they end up representing nothing but missed potential.
Charlie’s emotional journey is similar. The story of Firestarter is, in many ways, about Charlie’s relationship with good and evil. Being treated like a weapon or a monster, Charlie has to decide whether she is going to fight against these stereotypes or embrace the power that comes from being “the monster they all think she is.” As much as her powers terrify her, and as much as she doesn’t want to hurt anyone, she also can’t help but admit that it sometimes “feels good” when she uses them. The film keeps hinting at the fact that it is going to explore the tension Charlie feels between morality, impulse, compassion, and resistance, but it never really follows through except for in a few clunky and poorly-done scenes.
Even though the film gets clunky and uninteresting, it still remains visually stunning. Shots of Andy bleeding profusely from his eyes as he uses his power remind viewers that this is, indeed, a horror film, and the strong visuals persist throughout. There is also not a weak performance in the film; it’s just a shame that the strong cast was not given a consistently good enough script to flesh out the characters that they embody so well.
If the entirety of Firestarter had been as good as the first 20 minutes, it could have been one of the best horror movies of the year. However, the quality promised in the beginning quickly falls away, and viewers are left with an aggressively mediocre, forgettable film with a few good visuals and some solid performances. That being said, for anyone who enjoys a good Stephen King classic, Firestarter will still provide a good time, even if it often leaves you wishing for more.Watch Firestarter