A leaf falls from a tree, slowly falling toward dry, parched earth as radio broadcasts from around the world talk about wildfires and record temperatures. As it reaches the ground we see that the forest around it is on fire.
It’s an appropriate opening for a movie called On Fire but we quickly move away from it to the town of Colburn California where the high school track team is coming back from a run with Clay Laughlin (Asher Angel, Darby and the Dead, Shazam! Fury of the Gods) out in front. His father Dave (Peter Facinelli, Twilight, Freezer) is in the stands waiting for him and hoping his coach is right about him getting a scholarship.
He’ll need it if he wants to go to college because things aren’t going so well at the Laughlin residence. Mom (Fiona Dourif, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Living With Chucky) is eight months pregnant, and Grandpa George (Lance Henriksen, The Artifice Girl, Aliens) is an abusive old bastard who won’t quit smoking despite being on oxygen and whose medical bills are putting added strain on their finances which are already tight due to Dave having just started his own construction company.
The script by Ron Peer (The Boy, the Dog and the Clown, Goodbye Lover) and Nick Lyon (Titanic 666, Upstairs), Lyon directed most of On Fire before coming down with COVID and Facinelli directed the rest, loads the film’s opening up with cliches. So it’s no surprise when the fire manages to escape detection as it crosses the gorge and threatens the town. Of course, the Laughlins end up trapped in the midst of it and face a seemingly hopeless race to safety.
I also wanted to pay tribute to the courageous first responders who risk their lives to combat forest fires. But rather than tell the story of the firefighter, I chose to tell the first responder side of the story from the perspective of a 911 operator.
On Fire occasionally cuts away to a control center where we see Kayla (Ashlei Foushee, Romeo and Juliet Killers, A Little White Lie), struggle to deal with callers seeking help without being overcome by the enormity of the disaster. It’s a reminder of the actual scope of both the fire that threatens the family and the efforts to get people to safety. A look at the big picture while most of the film focuses on a very small picture.
The film runs a fast seventy-six minutes and, for a lower budgeted film On Fire does have a lot going on and doesn’t let things drag. A fleeing deer causes a car crash, propane tanks explode, there’s a race to clear a clocked road, etc. None of it is original, but it’s well staged and keeps things moving at a decent pace.
Another thing the film has going for it is the film’s look. Fire is extremely hard to create convincingly with CGI, and expensive and dangerous to do as a practical effect. On Fire makes good use of lighting and camera angles edited in with stock footage to help maintain the illusion. It doesn’t always work, but it does a much better job than many films. Cinematographer Philip Roy (Deer Camp 86, Cover Me) also gets some good mileage out of the dark, smoke-filled air, using it to deepen the sense of danger even when we don’t see the flames.
Despite some heavy handed ecological messaging and the predictability of the script, On Fire is one of the more watchable disaster movies to come around recently. It’s miles ahead of The Asylum’s efforts at portraying global destruction and a bit more believable than something like Firenado. I was pleasantly surprised by the film and I think most fans of the genre should find it to your liking.
Cineverse has released On Fire in theatres, you can check the film’s Facebook page for news of a VOD and Digital release.