On Fire is a lean disaster flick. The filmmakers know why their audience showed up, and they intend on delivering the goods. As much as that transparency is a little too obvious, I kind of respect the no-nonsense attitude of this action-thriller.
Wildfires are common for the Californian locals of Colburn, which is why news of spreading flames is first greeted with indifference. But when billowing smoke grows larger and more consistent, the degree of danger gradually increases; leading to evacuations and survival plans. Unfortunately for the Laughlin family (Fiona Dourif, Asher Angel, Lance Henriksen, and co-director Peter Facinelli), an exit strategy is more difficult. First, they’re separated, and then they’re on the run. As the Laughlins frantically search for safety or communication to an emergency dispatch (Ashlei Foushee plays the rookie 911 operator that the family keeps ringing), the raging fires just won’t quit.
On Fire is a “post-heavy” film, meaning that a lot of effects have been applied during post-production to heighten the level of intensity. Some of the effects work, such as the smouldering ash that creeps up on the Laughlins to warn them worse qualities are approaching, but most of these special effects look very artificial which ends up weighing on the movie’s believability and the viewer’s ability to take this movie seriously. What the effects do a good job of portraying, however, is the speed in which these wildfires spread, which does add an alarming element to the film’s urgency.
Facinelli co-directs with Nick Lyon, who appears to have claimed the lion’s share of the filmmaking (no pun intended, seriously, an opening credit reads “a film by Nick Lyon”). Lyon failed to make a backwoods character-driven story work in the The Surprise Visit, but he sure knows how to handle larger-scale action set pieces in On Fire. As someone who finds themselves growing impatient during redundant backstories in disaster movies, the streamlined characterization is satisfying and it allows the filmmaker to push past his faults as a storyteller. This method isn’t always going to work for Lyon, but at least this will give him enough reassurance for how to start his next project.
With hokey effects and maudlin moments of emotion working within exciting action sequences and well-intentioned gratitude towards first-responders, On Fire lands as an unapologetic guilty pleasure that gives audiences more than they bargained for.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie