As a child, Katerina was the sole survivor of a mysterious plane crash that left her motherless. She grows up to become a psychologist specializing in fear management (played by Svetlana Ivanova), and, as proof of mastery over her past, now embarks on a commercial flight with a moppet of her own in tow to visit grandpa. No spoilers in saying that this planned trip doesn’t go super well.
Alexander Babaev’s Row 19 is probably best read as a fairy tale, its Red Riding Hood the product of unresolved trauma poised to repeat the horrors of the past in a cycle of broken promises and regret. It’s worth noting that Katerina’s tragic origin story may or may not have been the work of some sort of demonic Baba Yaga, and that prior to this fateful crash she had a leg brace whose squeak haunts her in adulthood. Row 19 is also like a fairy tale in that it isn’t terribly interested in making literal, coherent sense.
It’s a shame, too, because at a lean 78 minutes, Row 19 has the ingredients for an efficient, self-contained paranoia thriller of the Red Eye/Flight Plan/”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” variety (the better recent version of this is 2020’s Shadow in the Cloud). Instead, Row 19 is an unwieldy omnibus with an armory of Chekhov’s guns it can’t possibly find time to fire. Katerina’s fellow passengers of the damned include a friendly war correspondent gone deskbound (Wolfgang Cerni), an irritable workaholic (Anatoliy Kot), and a spaced out illustrator (Anatoliy Kot). There’s an evocative image at one point involving bloody phantom hands engulfing the windows of the plane, and a grace note of a dying man, having comically Final Destination’d himself, takes solace in a photograph of a family he wishes he spent more time with. Row 19 is a grab bag of underbaked conceits in search of an anchoring theme.
Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), the young protagonist of the critically maligned Firestarter update, is at one point clad in a red hooded sweater, all the better to telegraph its similar interest in children adrift in a dangerous, arbitrary world. Charlie’s parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) were undergrad test subjects, which triggered in them supernatural powers that they’ve passed onto Charlie, now cursed with barely suppressed pyrokinesis. What I like about this Firestarter is its Logan-like body horror approach to super powers, its emphasis on the toll time and experience eventually takes on a human body. Really what Firestarter is concerned with is the cost we exact on the world around us by merely existing in it, and our stumbling, noble-if-futile attempts at mitigating it.
Firestarter is based on a 1980 novel by Stephen King, previously adapted in 1984 by Mark L. Lester with Drew Barrymore as Charlie. Both versions find Charlie and her father on the run from nefarious government types intent on locking Charlie in a subterranean bunker for study. This one, like Kimberly Peirce’s underestimated Carrie update, is more empathetic than its predecessor, depicting Charlie not so much as a frightened animal reacting out of fear and instinct, but as a developing young person navigating the value of forgiveness. As a genre exercise there’s a lot to admire, from its wonderfully gruesome effects work to a scenery chewing Kurtwood Smith cameo as an obsolete mad scientist left to dwell over the horrors he’s wrought.
Oh, and it sports a score co-composed by John Carpenter. It rules.
Row 19 (2021)
Runtime: 78 minutes
MPA Rating: Not rated
Streaming: Available to rent May 31
Runtime: 94 minutes
MPA Rating: R
Streaming: Currently in theaters, Peacock