Movie: Reign of Fire (2002)

I remember the first time I saw 2002’s Reign of Fire, as I was hoping it would be as laughably bad as it looked.  I mean, just look at this plot, set in a future after an apocalypse brought on by dragons which had been unleashed from deep within the earth during a subway tunnel excavation.  Dragons.  In the 21st century.  And, damn, did the critics ever dogpile on this one. 

So, was I ever stunned when we found ourselves glued to it.  And here we are watching it again a couple of decades later, and once again finding ourselves watching it with rapt attention.  To my surprise then and now, the film completely sells me on its central conceit—at least as far as this happening within the world of this movie.

The picture opens in what was the present day at the time of the film’s release.   A boy (Ben Thornton) goes to see his mom (Alice Krige) on her job as engineer of a London subway tunnel dig.  I like the rapport between Thornton and the various tunnel workers he encounters.  Also, it was good to see a woman running the show.  Alas, that will be short-lived as she is about to die trying to flee the ancient dragon they have accidentally unearthed in the excavation.  Isn’t it funny how, whenever a young boy in a movie says “Mom?” in a certain way in any movie, it means she’s dead?

Flash forward to nearly two decades later and Thornton has grown into Christian Bale.  He’s the leader of a community of stragglers who have survived the dragon apocalypse.  They are holed up in an ancient castle.  They have not had radio contact with anybody in two years. 

One day, a bald Matthew McConaughey shows up in a tank with a bunch of fellow US soldiers in other military vehicles.  He claims they arrived in England by plane, which makes Bale incredulous, as dragons had long since dominated the skies.  There’s a tense standoff between the men, as Bale refuses to give them refuge and McConaughey seems ready to take down the castle doors.  Then a helicopter lands and Bale can see there’s some truth to his story.  I was a bit dumbfounded, as leading with the chopper would have prevented the clash.

The helicopter is part of a bizarre method of dragon slaying.  I’m not sure how the triangulation setup they have works, but three motorcyclists put down transmitters in the ground far apart from each other.  These devices immediately brought to my mind the “thumpers” from the original Dune.  Then, three soldiers armed with bolos jump out of the copter and they try to snare the dragon.  The first time we see this, the dragon is brought down, but at the expense of the lives of all three men.  I think one of them was snatched out the air by their prey.  Two others plummet to their deaths.  The good folk at the castle are thrilled to have seen a dragon get killed for the first time.  McConaughey is repulsed they are not mourning for his dead soldiers, bringing the party down with: “We bury our dead at dawn.”  Is that necessary?  Because it seems to me the ones who couldn’t get their chutes to deploy in time were self-burying.

Izabella Scorupco is McConaughey’s pilot.  She has made an interesting observation: every dragon they have encountered has been female.  This has led them to develop a theory there is only one male in the whole world fertilizing the eggs.  They also believe that male roosts in England.  And so, this ragtag ensemble of soldiers and laypeople go to find the dragon that had been unleashed in the opening sequence.

There’s a lot to enjoy here once one completely suspends their disbelief.  If you enjoy post-apocalyptic movies as much as I do, you’ll find much to enjoy here even if one ignores the dragons.  That said, these mythological creatures make for a formidable adversary.  It would be enough that these giant lizards breathe fire, but they’re smart, too.  One incinerates an unoccupied vehicle of a group, so they can’t escape readily when it starts picking them off.

The performances are pretty solid all around, with Bale possibly giving a damn for the last time in his career while McConaughey seems to be foreshadowing future anti-heroes he would play, like in True Detective.  I found it funny both men talk in that weird “loud, deep whispering” voice they’re required to use in all action films of this century.  I bet this was good practice for when Bale would assume the role of Batman. 

The dialog is snappy, but not excessively showy, such as this exchange between Bale and Gerard Butler when the tanks first roll up to their doorstep: “If anything happens you know what to do.”  “No.  I have no idea.”  “Neither do I.”

The special effects were special back in 2002, but time has taken some of the shine off them.  The creature effects, though almost entirely CGI, still hold up.  Alas, the fire effects have not fared as well.  Curiously, the most lacking effects work is greenscreen, a technology you think would have been perfected by then.  At least technology had not advanced to the point where a virtual camera could do 360 degree orbits around set pieces.  I have come to greatly despise such abuses of CGI.

I was happy to discover Reign of Fire still clicked for me, and had a blast watching it again so many years later.  Having recently seen Quatermass and the Pit, a 60’s film where a London underground excavation accidentally unleashes a long-buried alien menace, I wondered if that earlier film may have been an inspiration for this one.

Dir: Rob Bowman

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco

Watched on blu-ray