Technology has advanced a lot in the almost 40 years since they last made a movie from Stephen King’s 1980 bestseller Firestarter. That’s bad news for the contemporised characters of this new adaptation, who are one glance at a smartphone away from being tracked down via geolocation, and for the audiences forced to cope with the dreaded CG flames of our modern era. When little pyrokinetic Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) lights a fuse with her supernatural noggin, the inferno now explodes in shoddy digital ripples.
Everything about this Firestarter is drably televisual — an appropriate aesthetic for a thriller destined to be half-watched on a streaming service between revisits to The Office. Much scarier than the film’s exploitation of surveillance-state fears is the reminder that Zac Efron is now old enough to play the father of a preteen. For her part, Armstrong brings a hotter temper to the role than Drew Barrymore did in the previous version, sneering one-liners (“Liar, liar, pants on fire”) at the scientists she barbecues.
King’s tale, far from his best, made more sense as a 1970s hangover, a portrait of a family man feeling the side effects of a decade reshaped by hallucinogens and Watergate. To that end, it at least sounds era-appropriate: the throbbing synth score comes courtesy of none other than John Carpenter. Close your eyes and you can almost pretend you’re watching a proper King adaptation, like the killer-car classic Carpenter directed a lifetime ago.