Let me preface this by saying that a) I’m a big Stephen King fan; and b) I can’t remember a word of his 3 latest books. But back in The Day, ol’ Steve could write up a storm, and one of his really good early books was Firestarter. When they announced they were making it into a movie I was a bit chuffed (before I discovered that it was apparently really hard to make a good movie out of a King book. Anyway, the movie came out in 1984 or ’85, and it wasn’t a great adaptation. (I hope you’ve all read the book or at least seen the first movie, because I’m going to write as if you’ve done one of those things.) Oh, and ***SPOILER REVIEW!***
I try not to write reviews of bad things, because there are a lot of bad things out there (not the Firestarter “Bad Thing”), and I would spend all my time writing spoiler-filled bad reviews; there are too few Good Things (thanks, Martha) and the ones I like should be talked about, not just the things I don’t. (I hope that makes sense outside my head; inside it makes perfect sense.)
Anyway, the first movie starred Drew Barrymore as Charlie McGee; David Keith as Andy McGee (her father); Heather Locklear (briefly) as mother Vicky McGee; Martin Sheen as Cap Hollister; George C. Scott as Native American John Rainbird; and Art Carney as Irv Manders. Oh, and Freddie Jones as Dr. Wanless. The 2022 version stars… hmm—can’t remember any of their names or faces, except for Kurtwood Smith as Dr. Wanless and John Beasley as Irv Manders. Zac Efron I don’t know from Adam, but he plays Andy McGee. (And I STILL don’t know him from Adam.) Charlie was played by newcomer Ryan Kiera Armstrong, and Rainbird by Michael Greyeyes (apparently a real Native American playing the part—what a concept!); also Gloria Reuben as Cap.
Okay, let me say right off the bat, that there were some good actors in the first version; I’m guessing that besides his amazing acting skills, George C. Scott was chosen to play Rainbird because he could possibly look vaguely Native American (in Canada we say “Native Indian, First Nations, Indigenous,” etc.). But he provided the proper intensity to the Rainbird character, who’s supposed to be scary intense in his own right, but pretending to be an underdog in order to worm his way into Charlie’s affections, as her father was… what? You don’t know this story? Hang on, and be prepared for ****MAJOR SPOILERS**** here (book and first film):
Andy and Vicky were college students in the ‘60s when they took place in a sponsored drug test—an experimental elixir called “Lot 6” that might grant people various ESP powers—put on by Dr. Wanless, sponsored by The Shop—a very black government agency, not the CIA, DIA, NSA, etc., but darker than all those others put together. There were 12 students; Andy met Vicky at the trial, where they bonded telepathically. There were something like 4 students (including Andy and Vicky) who came out of the trial alive and sane. (The other two later committed suicide.) Dr. Wanless noticed the two, and The Shop (run by Cap Hollister) decided to keep an eye on the survivors, telling everyone that the experiment was a failure, but quietly vanishing the actual failures, and paying Andy and Vicky, who decided to marry, something like $20 grand to keep their mouths shut.
Andy and Vicky begat Charlene/Charlie, and The Shop became very interested to see what the offspring of two psi-heavy people might have. And it turns out that even as a baby, Charlie displayed various talents, the biggest of which was pyrokinesis, or starting fires with the mind.
Wanless, visualizing Nobel prizes, was happy to watch them; Cap and The Shop were visualizing military uses for someone with pyrokinesis. Rainbird (in the book) was more than a bit nuts: a Vietnam vet with a missing eye and a badly scarred face who embraced his Indigenous heritage by killing people, especially people whom The Shop (Cap) wanted dead, and watching their eyes as they died. A pleasant fellow all around.
Andy began training Charlie very young not to use her power, saying it was a Bad Thing—after blankets, toy bunny rabbits, and finally Vicky, were burned. Fortunately, Vicky wasn’t too badly burned, but all this activity was enough for Cap to decide that The Shop needed custody of her. He sent a couple of agents to pick her and Andy up (she’s maybe 9 or 10 at this point, I think), but she’s having a sleepover at a friend’s house and—afraid that she and Andy were running—the agents question Vicky to death trying to ascertain Charlie’s whereabouts.
Well, coming home with Charlie after picking her up at her friend’s, Andy discovers his dead wife and he and Charlie immediately go on the run. And after a while, both the book and first movie start in media res, where they are in New York a year later, still running from The Shop. And that’s the very first thing wrong with the new version. They don’t do that. For some reason, they decide to skip practically everything in the book and the first movie and build suspense slowly. You get all the backstory before the action starts. Such a bad idea—King is a master of how to start a book, and it’s almost always in the middle of the action. Of course, King’s only sold millions of copies of his book, so what the heck does he know? We’re movie people, we know how movies are done! At least I imagine that’s how they figured it.
As a result, there’s no tension throughout much of the new movie, and it’s not due to the actors, who are mostly pretty good—though the script leaves some of them, like Reuben’s Cap, as mostly sketchy.
Anyway, on the run, Andy can use his telepathic power, which is a “push,” that lets him make people see or believe what he wants them to see, to get things they need—but he can’t use it very hard or very long, or his brain will eventually explode; every time he uses it, it causes microfissures and bleeding in his frontal lobes (and out of the corners of his eyes). Charlie, on the other hand, can use her telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers freely—except that her pyrokinesis often gets away from her and she burns more than she really wants to; it’s a Bad Thing when it does that. And her power is growing—which is why Cap wants her so badly: he says (or Dr. Wanless does) “imagine if her power grows enough that she can set off a thermonuclear explosion with her mind—or can crack the planet!” And he’s also worried that North Korea, Russia, China—or whomever—can kidnap her and use her power against the U.S. (Something I never noticed before I moved to Canada is that for many Americans the world begins and ends at the US border; the rest of us scarcely exist except as possible threats.)
As I’m rewatching the 2022 movie and bitching about it out loud, my wife (the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk) asks me—if you’d never read the book or seen the first movie, what would you think of the new one? I thought for a moment and then said, “Well, we’re almost 30 minutes into it and it’s just beginning to move. I’d think it was damned slow.”
The new version retcons the story so that “Andy and Charlie McGee” are pseudonyms—the third set, according to the film; and they’ve been running for five years. WTactualF? Why? What purpose? Who knows? And rather than being a Shop (only now it’s “DSI”—again, WTF? Why?) employee on call, Rainbird is called out of retirement to capture Andy and Charlie, and he kills Vicky—while Andy and Charlie were out getting ice cream after Charlie burns Vicky’s arms, Rainbird comes calling. And Vicky says “I’ll die before I betray my daughter” and throws stuff telekinetically at Rainbird, but ineffectively. (Hey, if I were telekinetic and fighting for my life, I might try stopping the opponent’s heart or something like that. But maybe that’s just me.) Rainbird reads her mind to find they were out getting ice cream—another left-field WTF? Moment—so when Andy comes back with Charlie and Rainbird holds a knife to her throat; and when Andy tries “pushing” Rainbird, he can’t. Rainbird says “You didn’t think you were the only one, did you?”
Then Charlie screams and blasts him with her pyrokinetic power (hair flying, see Figure 3), it sets the room on fire but he apparently doesn’t even get his hair burned off. It is at this point that I’m banging my head on the wall… Cap wants to capture this girl who apparently can’t even burn the guy who killed her mother! There has to be good stuff of some kind here, right? Right?
Okay, Armstrong is a much better actor than Barrymore (not really a hard thing, IMO); that’s a good thing. Efron’s okay as Andy, but I really like Beasley as Irv; he seems more “in character” than Art Carney did. And Kurtwood Smith isn’t crazy enough—IMO again—as Wanless; Freddie Jones was crazier. Wanless is described in the book as looking like Dr. Cyclops (from the eponymous movie). The new movie kept little bits of characterization from the book that made absolutely no sense without context: Rainbird in the book had a gigantic shoe collection; in this movie you see a half-dozen pairs of boots on a shelf; Wanless obsessively shredded cigarettes in the book (he was trying to keep from smoking); in this movie, he’s making little cones of coloured sand. And to keep this review from going too long, here are a couple more WTF moments from the movie, where they changed things willy-nilly.
- In the book, Andy dies saving Charlie, after being shot by Rainbird; Cap and Rainbird are blasted by Charlie after Andy dies. In the movie, Charlie kills Andy and Cap.
- In the movie, Charlie doesn’t have the power of book Charlie—Andy tells her to blast the place to the ground. She does in the book; in the movie she runs out of juice and at the end Rainbird lifts her in his arms and walks offscreen with her. In the end of the book, she makes her way to the NY Times and tells her story to a reporter. (Kind of a weak ending; King always had problems ending his books, but they usually cruised along like mad until he had to end them.
- The first version tried to adhere to the book as best it could; the CGI was mostly limited to fireball effects and Charlie’s hair blowing around the moment she used her powers (Figure 2). (BTW, compare Figures 2 and 3 to see how little imagination they used to create the new film’s poster.) The new movie has access to more CGI, but they totally screwed up—or ignored, more likely—the book.
I don’t think anyone will like this movie much (IMDB’s giving it a 4.3 as of right now; I doubt it will get much higher) whether they’ve read the book or seen the first version or not. It’s pretty sucky. My rating would be 3.0 if I did numerical IMDB-type ratings. (That’s out of 10.)
Comments? Anyone? Bueller? You can comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All comments are welcome! (Just be polite, please.) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!