Reign of Fire (2002) ***
I’ve been a big fan of post-apocalypse movies ever since I first saw The Road Warrior on cable in the early 1980’s. Since that time, I thought I’d seen the world as we know it ended in just about every way there was to end it— nuclear war, pandemic disease, celestial catastrophe, alien invasion, sheer entropic collapse. The makers of Reign of Fire, however, have thought of a way to destroy civilization that simply never would have occurred to me. In Reign of Fire, the apocalypse arrives in the form of dragons.
Yep— dragons. The kind that breathe fire and hoard treasure and eat virgin princesses. True, the ones in this movie only do the first of those three things, but they can scarcely be faulted for that. After all, no one’s going to have much treasure to hoard after the fall of civilization, and the last confirmed sighting of a virgin princess was decades ago. So how do you suppose dragons might force their way into the modern world? Through the activities of a construction crew digging a subway tunnel in London, of course. (Personally, I think the Greater London Council ought to consider forbidding any enlargement of the Underground system except after prior consultation with Bernard Quatermass. First undead Martian grasshopper men, and now this...) The engineer running the show downstairs (Alice Krige, from Ghost Story and Sleepwalkers) is a young, single mother, and on that fateful day when her men dig up the dragons, her son, Quinn, stops in at her place of work to give her some bad news. Evidently he has been denied the scholarship that would have been his ticket to the high school he and Mom had their hearts set on. While that little drama is playing itself out, the man running the giant drill hits a big underground void-space where his boss’s calculations say there should be no such thing. Since Quinn is small enough to fit through the entry into the cavern made by the drill, its operator sends him in to have a look around. It’s a big cave, alright, and though there’s a limit to how much Quinn can make out in the glow from his flashlight, it certainly seems as though something proportionately huge is inside it. When Quinn lays his hand on its knobby, corrugated surface, there is a sudden movement from the other end of the cave, a small fire breaks out on its floor, and something high above the boy drips a thick, oily liquid onto his face. Quinn flees in a state not far from panic, shouting all the while that there’s some kind of living thing in the cave. That’s when the explosions start. In fact, Quinn is the only person to escape from the tunnel alive after the gigantic dragon the workmen dug up has finished clawing and burning its way to the surface.
Twenty years later, Quinn has grown up to be Christian Bale (from American Psycho and the Shaft remake) and the leader of a small settlement outside what little is left of Edinburgh. As he explains in voiceover while writing in his diary, the dragons reproduced with astonishing speed. Within months, there were millions, and they began laying the world to waste and feasting on the ash left over from the conflagrations they caused. The militaries of the world took up the gauntlet, of course, but there were a fuck of a lot of dragons, and they were extremely hard to kill. In the end, with most of the Earth’s land-surface already reduced to a tremendous ash-field anyway, those nations that had them resorted to nuclear weapons. Even that wasn’t enough, and by 2020, there is hardly anything left of the world we know at all. The only bright spot is that the dragons’ numbers seem to be falling off; having burned up everything in sight, the creatures are now beginning to starve to death.
It’s that last part that is the lynchpin of Quinn’s survival strategy. He and the people he leads— something less than 100 men, women, and children— have set themselves up in a medieval castle (stone being damned hard to burn), beneath which they have dug out a network of insulated tunnels served by an ingenious water-cooling system devised by a man who once made blast furnaces for a living. Quinn’s village is more or less self-sufficient, growing their crops in fields too small to attract the dragons’ notice (where they’re getting their bullets, gasoline, and electricity from is, as usual, a question that goes unanswered), and Quinn’s hope is that they will be able to hold out until the monsters’ self-created famine drives them back below the surface— as has apparently happened repeatedly in the distant past. (Among the none-too-useful insights into dragon biology that the old world’s scientists were able to arrive at before the apocalypse cranked into high gear was that the dragons had caused the Cretaceous extinction, along with other similar events.) The trouble is, Quinn’s people are hungry, too, and it is a very open question which species will outlast the other.
Then one day, the castle receives a visit from a band of extremely heavily armed men riding a motley collection of military vehicles, up to and including a helicopter and a main battle tank. These men are, in the words of Quinn’s friend Creedy (Gerard Butler, from Tale of the Mummy and Dracula 2000), the “one thing worse than dragons— Americans.” Specifically, they’re the “Kentucky Irregulars,” ex-military men under the command of one Denton Van Zan (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation’s Matthew McConaughey) who have set themselves on a seemingly quixotic quest to eliminate dragons from the world. And to be fair, they really have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success as dragonslayers. The mere fact that they managed to fly across the Atlantic in one piece proves that. The day after their arrival at Quinn’s castle, the Kentucky Irregulars get a chance to demonstrate their dragon-killing technique, when one of the creatures attacks a tomato field. In the great tradition of the American military, it involves equal parts advanced technology and seat-of-the-pants improvisation, and despite an understandably high casualty rate, it gets the job done.
But Van Zan is playing for higher stakes. As he scornfully points out to the Brits who are so riotously celebrating his victory that night, killing off one dragon here and another there isn’t going to do the human race a bit of good in the long run. But he and his top lieutenant, Alex the helicopter pilot (Izabella Scorupco), have come armed with a theory that casts the battle against the monsters in entirely different terms. You see, neither the Kentucky Irregulars nor anyone else they’ve been in contact with has ever seen a male dragon, and Van Zan is willing to bet that Quinn and his people haven’t, either. Van Zan figures that’s because there’s only one, that dragon society is in effect a mirror image of a bee hive. He and Alex have used computers back home to analyze the dragons’ movements across the globe, and they believe not only that the creatures first appeared in London (which Quinn could have told them, had he been around to ask), but that the king dragon is still living there. The thing is, the Kentucky Irregulars don’t have enough men to take the fight to London by themselves. They want Quinn’s help, and if not enough volunteers come forward from among his people, they don’t mind drafting as many able-bodied men as they can keep control of. That’s the first reason Quinn doesn’t like Van Zan’s idea. The second is that he isn’t the first guy to come along with a notion to go to London and kill the dragon king. The last bunch who got that big lightbulb were from the town of Pembry, and when they failed in their mission, the dragons tracked the survivors back home and erased Pembry from the map as effectively as any nuclear bombardment. Quinn doesn’t think the Kentucky Irregulars have what it takes, and he knows that his people will end up footing the bill for their failure. And maybe if Van Zan knew that the king dragon was as big as a B-52 and as smart as any man, he’d be a little more cautious, too.
The first trouble with Reign of Fire is that it isn’t at all the movie it presents itself as, which is the movie that most people I’ve heard from wanted it to be. Looking at the promo poster, with its scene of airborne dragons obliterating Buckingham Palace while fighting off helicopter gunships, you’d think this film was about humanity’s initial battle against the monsters. All of that, though, is passed over in a couple minutes’ worth of narration, played over a disjointed montage of destruction footage. Reign of Fire would have been much better off if its producers had billed it as the post-apocalypse movie it is. The second trouble has to do with the way the dragons themselves are handled. We don’t really see much of them, and the dragon we see most is the king. The problem with this is that it short-circuits the build-up to Van Zan’s first, disastrous foray against his ultimate foe. Because we’ve seen so little of the female dragons in action, we have no real feel for how much of a threat they pose, no baseline by which to measure the male. We don’t really know how smart they are, how vulnerable (or invulnerable) they are to such weapons as most post-apocalyptic people are likely to possess, or how destructive they’re capable of being on a one-for-one basis. So when the king turns up, all we have to go on by way of comparison is his size relative to the females, and consequently the outcome of the Kentucky Irregulars’ first attack isn’t the shock that it should be. For that matter, because of the difficulty inherent in interpreting the size of a flying object, it isn’t even clear until after the fact that the dragon Van Zan encounters at the edge of Pembry really is the king.
But despite all that, Reign of Fire makes a strong showing for itself. Its premise gives it a leg up to start with, and this is then reinforced by excellent casting and a few bits of really accomplished writing. The antagonism between Quinn and Van Zan, for example, is the best kind, the kind in which both characters have entirely valid reasons for behaving the way they do, and in which neither can claim to be entirely right about the decisions those reasons lead them to. Quinn’s wait-the-dragons-out approach really does seem to be the product of sheer wishful thinking, but he’s absolutely right in believing that Van Zan is about to bite off much more than he can chew. And though Van Zan’s is the only strategy that holds out any meaningful hope for humanity, the miscalculations he makes in carrying it out have an enormous cost which is borne principally by people who are essentially innocent bystanders. Bale and McConaughey do an excellent job with this material, so much so that it hardly matters that theirs are the only characters in the movie with any depth to them.
Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the dragons as special effects. They’re great. I’ve made no secret of my anti-CGI leanings over the years, but not a one of my usual complaints applies here— these dragons might as well have been designed specifically to address my oft-made objections to the way CGI technology is usually employed. More than any other digital movie monsters I’ve seen, the dragons in Reign of Fire move and act like actual animals, and with good reason. In designing their creatures, the special effects department prepared themselves by studying lots of film of various animal species in action: bats for their wing movements, leopards for their gait, hawks for their overall posture in flight. The result is a menagerie of animated beasties that seem far more real and far more present than anything else of their kind I’ve yet come across. It’s enough to make me forgive the fact that the detail design of the dragons is stolen directly and completely from Dragonslayer.