Stream It Or Skip It?


Peter Facinelli stars in and co-directs (with Nick Lyon) On Fire (now streaming on Peacock), a modestly budgeted dramatic thriller playing out during an out-of-control California wildfire. Best known as Dr. Carlisle Cullen in the Twilight films, Facinelli here plays a family man forced from his home by the blaze, and… well, there’s not much else to this movie beyond a question of survival, and whether it can avoid the cliches that line this type of narrative like bear traps. (Narrator voice: It can’t.)


The Gist: The kid has some wheels: Clay Laughlin (Asher Angel) turns on the jets and zooms past the finish line, winning his cross country race. “I’m thinking scholarship,” mutters his coach, which pleases Clay’s dad, Dave (Facinelli). They hop in the truck and head home and Clay expresses concern for the plume of smoke over yonder – but Dave says it’ll never hop the ridge and threaten them. Sounds like famous last words. HUMMMM goes the ominous music as a subtitle timestamps the scene: 3:37 P.M. 

The Laughlins are a hardscrabble family just scraping by in a manufactured home nestled in a placid woodsy spot. Placid for now, anyway. Relatively placid for now, that is – nothing’s burning yet, but Dave’s frail, aging father (Lance Henriksen) will soon wake up and shout mean things at his daughter-in-law Sarah (Fiona Dourif), because she tries to get him to use his oxygen tank for his ailing lungs. And that really burns her tuckus. She’s eight months pregnant and works on her feet all day to pay the old man’s medical bills, and this is the thanks she gets. On top of that, her car needs repairs and Dave says he’ll get to it, but we get the feeling she’s heard that before.

Another doomy DUMMMMM: 4:24 P.M. You know that fire? The one that Dave said wouldn’t spread? Well, it’s spreading. Did I mention we’ve been cutting between the Laughlins’ daily domestic struggle and a 911 operator named Kayla (Ashli Foushee)? Well, Kayla’s starting to get more and more calls as more and more fire alerts pop up on her monitor. More on her later. As Dave picks up supplies at the hardware that he can’t afford, phones blow up with alerts: time to evacuate. OMMMMMM: 7:35 P.M. 

Dave’s stuck behind a roadblock, on the other side of which and up the road a stretch are his pregnant wife, elderly father and teenage son. (What, they couldn’t throw in a blind three-legged dog, too?) There’s also lots and lots of fire on the other side of that roadblock, and he zooms past the barrier and through the blinding smoke because there’s no way he’s going to leave his family out there and not end up eventually running away from fireballs in slow motion, or be there for his wife should she go into labor (I can neither confirm nor deny; NO SPOILERS, y’know), or witness his son put his scholarship-worthy running skills to work by dashing for help through the burning forest, or be there for the moment when they forge a meaningful emotional connection with the 911 operator. No. Freaking. Way.

ON FIRE, Fiona Dourif,
Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: For a more convincing portrayal of 21st-century forest fires, I recommend the Angelina Jolie action-thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead.

Performance Worth Watching: Not much beyond bland earnestness all around here, but Dourif (daughter of the incomparable Brad Dourif) finds some valid emotional traction in a few scenes, and Henriksen is an old pro convincingly playing an old man who’s in a dark place due to his deteriorating health.

Memorable Dialogue: The Laughlins find an oasis amidst their flight from the flames – and it’s got an old rotary telephone: “Hey, I’ve heard about these,” Clay quips. 

Sex and Skin: None.

Photo: Everett Collection

Our Take: On Fire boasts some real made-for-TV energy: Unconvincing CGI, lots of stock footage of forest fires, a shallow story and characters with a level of nonspecificity that theoretically allows us to project our own experiences upon them – you know, like, hey, I’m a dad and I’d do anything to help my family, or hey, I’m a 911 operator and the job sure is tough, or hey, I’m a woman who’s been pregnant and if you thought labor was rough wait until it happens in the woods during a wildfire, or hey, I can run fast and I’d run EXTRA fast to save my parents, stuff like that. This is what mediocre movies do – they make us do the work of giving these people personalities. They also render narrative suspense in the most bare-bones basic moral concerns, in this case, gee, I hope the characters who are alive don’t end up being not alive by the end.

And On Fire is pretty mediocre. Obvious budget limitations are pretty easily forgiven when a movie’s heart is in the right place, and it surely is; about two-thirds of the way through, I predicted it would end up being a tribute to first responders, and sure enough, there was that exact sentiment on a title card, just before the credits ran. It pays a little lip service to climate change and throws in a moment or two of prayer for the Trinity Broadcast Network crowd, therefore pleasing – theoretically! – all two of the political demographics dominating America in 2024. 

But just because a movie is well-meaning doesn’t mean it’s original or unpredictable. This one isn’t phony, but definitely cliched, and watchable in the sense that it pounds round pegs into round holes; for those of us who like to eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, it’s somewhat vaguely satisfying to watch the drama unfold in a wholly foreseeable manner. Many things can be true at once, including the assertion that On Fire is both not particularly good and not particularly bad, and if you don’t like that wishy-washy assessment, feel free to set fire to the fence I’m sitting on – it wasn’t very comfortable anyway.

Our Call: Is giving On Fire a Just Fine-minus review a recommendation? Eh, not really. Just SKIP IT. 

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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