Through CRT fuzz, through the dirt and crackle of an aging and beaten tape, warbled audio emanates through scanlines and distortion, a faded memory of a time gone by. Hazy images of confused test subjects respond hesitantly to a slew of probing questions, and a slow burn of layered information begins to construct an image of a flickering neon runoff, a chemical experiment that provides the foundational placement of the story we’re about to live within. Underneath it all plays an ethereal soundscape of thudding synths drenched in acid-laced drums, a familiar and infectious slice of sonic brilliance that lends Firestarter a level of astonishing legitimacy as the opening credits flicker across the screen. It’s as simple as trope-laden exposition with mesmerizing music but the effective sales pitch of its atmospheric construction is as convincing as anything.
These opening credits are the peak of Firestarter‘s whirlwind 94 minutes, a point of actual style and substance that the rest of the film finds itself wildly incapable of (or flat out uninterested in) meeting. The exposition is simple enough and set with clarity, that many years ago an experiment took place that preyed on down on their luck college students with no family to miss them, an experiment whose consequences have found their way into the young Charlie McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). As her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) attempt to assist her with reconciling with and understanding who she’s becoming, the world of this underground blacksite facility returns to hunt them down. Like any Stephen King adaptation, there’s enough potential to craft a cinematically compelling vision of raging flame and blood-soaked insanity, but all the same it’s been proven time and time again that adaptation in name alone is not enough to buy brilliance. A deft and capable hand is required to transform often drug-fueled, bloated texts into effectively translated narratives, and a lazy or uninspired effort to push it onto the screen often comes with a resulting film feeling frustrating, pointless, completely nonsensical, or all of the above.
Firestarter is all of the above, an onslaught of pointless drivel that cannot construct itself cohesively, and proving emphatically that adaptations of its ilk require heavy lifting to transform the source material into workably cinematic concepts. There are so many narrative threads within the incredibly short runtime that none of them can possibly come through feeling effectively woven, constantly darting back and forth between characters and ideas with no idea how to actually keep any of them in the oven long enough to feel like they deserve any weight or investment. It’s all happening at such a breakneck pace that it’s hard to even keep track of what all the film needs you to keep track of, but luckily it never sells you on any particular reason to try. Along with its own desire to fit so much in such a short time, it necessitates a consistently devolving style of writing incapable of feeling realistic or human. To be able to fit it all in every character is constantly speaking in flat, inhuman exposition, each piece of dialogue as blunt as an anvil in order to constantly drive its thousands of threads forward.
When nobody is allowed to breathe, to just exist as characters and sell themselves as human beings, you’re eventually left with a film completely absent of tangible substance. There are no characters, there is nothing to care about, and when it tries to painfully extract emotional resonance it does so through such abysmally framed writing that it comes across as laughable above all else. Modernizing the setting but refusing to pull itself out of the decade in which it was written, the film is full of people who are all but worn out tropes, children who are all but vehicles for jeering and bullying, a tired and unwelcome vision of how anyone acts, feeling increasingly pointless as the bloodshed increases and the stakes supposedly rise. All that’s left eventually is a shell of a film, a pointless journey with no substance, meaning, or coherence. It’s lucky it has such effectively powerful glue holding its shattered façade together in the form of John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies’ score, without it it’s hard to say anything here would remotely resemble watchable content at all.