Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A post-apocalyptic movie about a handful of human survivors seeking to destroy a race of flying,
fire-breathing dragons, Reign of Fire has a good title, an impressive poster, and not
much else. Audiences drawn in last summer to see a fantasy tale about fanciful beasts, instead got
a humorless action movie that's 90% old-hat testosterone posing, and 10% well-animated but
unmotivated flying beasts. Response was tepid, and it's understandable: 1998's Yankee
version of Godzilla was far more entertaining.
In 2084, a holdout group of survivors tries to survive in a Scottish castle. For
an undisclosed number of years, giant flying dragons have scorched all human life from the Earth,
turning its cities into burning rubble. Quinn (Christian Bale) leads the group. As a child, he witnessed
the accidental release of the first monster dragon from an underground construction site in
London. He allows a column of American Air Cavalry dragon-killers led by Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey)
to join up with his clan, but their effort to bring down just one dragon takes the lives of three
irreplaceable soldiers. Van Zan goes off to London to search for the one male dragon responsible for siring all
of the species' offspring, but only Quinn knows how to get to the Alpha-male's lair.
Savant loves monster movies, always has, always will. The 1998 Godzilla was mostly a mess,
but it had a consistently impressive way of dealing with its giant lizard star, and almost a
good idea of how to construct a movie around it. I remember the cultural disappointment felt
by the entire American moviegoing public. After being primed for months to go ga-ga over Sony's
big G, they went to the monster movie and found out that it was just a monster movie. From
the premiere on, the hotly awaited film became a joke.
Reign of Fire has the look of a movie made by people who frankly don't know what they're doing.
The Zanucks are no tyros when it comes to producing, yet this is an unappealing
mishmosh of tired ideas. The quasi-Road Warrior setting is so familiar we don't even need the
paltry exposition we're given, and it's still a bore. And the military grunge glamour, with
Aliens-like monster-hunting soldiers engaged in an obsessive quest to defeat the dragons, is
a washout for anyone looking for anything remotely engaging.
It gets less appetizing. A lot of sympathetic actors are squeezed into a typical 'new era' screenplay,
where any scene that doesn't have action has been jettisoned. The film is an unrelieved video game
from one end to the other, without a story curve or any character development to let us care about
the players. Instead, we wonder how they feed themselves, and where the Americans get their fuel, and their
ammunition. Who keeps that helicopter in such tip-top shape? And how are we to become involved in
military actions that don't seem to have a chance of succeeding, with unconvincing skydivers shooting
nets at the wings of the target dragon? The dragons' onslaughts are so successful, that we wonder
why anyone is safe at any time - why don't the dragons just lay seige to the castle? If they're so hungry,
why do they wait to eat the tomato field?
This is one of those post-apocalyptic stories that takes too much effort to set up. The dragons
are supposed to have been living dormant underground for millions of years. Quinn's mom accidentally
releases the first, in sort of a replay of the freeing of Rodan by a volcanic eruption.
We're told that millions of the creatures quickly laid waste to the Earth, shown only in a montage
of Time magazine articles. All of the world's cities are burning at once, but there's still
enough of civilization left to publish magazines?
The montage backstory feels like the kind of cheat seen in cheapo 50s Sci Fi films, that ellipse all the
exciting visuals on their posters, because they're too expensive to shoot. Reign of Fire has
a great poster of dragons burning down the Houses of Parliament, but nothing like that happens in
the film. We see a number of shots of dozens of dragons roosting in the ruins of London, but the
blackened skeletal buildings aren't impressive.
For all the prideful descriptions of the talented animators on one of the disc's featurettes, the
dragons just aren't very impressive. Their basic design has been lifted from the film Dragonslayer
of 22 years ago. In action, we're given tiny blips, short cuts, that reveal them too quickly and
keep them from building up any menace, or personality. The filming style of director Rob Bowman is
montage cutting - sequences rarely establish any sense of firm place or reality. Everything looks
cool but nothing is important enough to dwell on for more than a second or two. The actors run around
like interchangeable Anime action figures ... all the way to the end, at which time we're still waiting for
the movie to start.
Finally, Reign of Fire is especially heavy going because it lacks a sense of humor, irony, leavening -
anything to relieve the constant air of dull monster threat. There's one short scene with some kids
laughing at a bedtime-story performance of Star Wars by the adults, and that's it. Nobody smiles
in this picture. The movie is one of those fantasies where we're always in a total war situation, watching
sour heroes fight grim battles. I'm not looking for a George Lucas yuck-fest here, just something
human to respond to.
What Reign of Fire resembles most is a very confused but well-known classic monster film called
Day of the Triffids. There, a biological threat comes out of nowhere to bring civilization to
a halt almost overnight. Mankind is doomed, and only a few survivors roam the roads trying to suss out
a solution. Day of the Triffids is a real botched job, with a story that
goes nowhere and which ends with a ridiculous, tacked on finale that makes no sense. But it has
strong main characters we care about, and it makes an attempt to visualize its own subject matter.
We see exactly how the menace starts and grows. We wander London with the confused hero and see
society collapsing. We travel to France and Spain and realize that the whole world is stricken. The
Triffid monsters are for the most part not well realized, but as a foe they're rather interesting.
A couple of scenes are actually scary.
Reign of Fire sets up an epic story, and then opts just to give us a few scenes of
thuddingly familiar battle action, that might as well be between soldiers and jets, or invading
spaceships. The monsters don't develop, and the way they're supposedly vanquished is unimpressive,
just a matter of killing the right one. One can picture a hive perishing because the Queen has been
killed, but what kind of species exists that only has one male member - ever - whose death finishes
them all? That's just plain lazy writing. It's worse than the conclusion of The Black Scorpion,
where a horde
of monsters is conveniently killed by the biggest, so that the heroes only have to do away with one
monster instead of hundreds. At the end of Reign of Fire, they stand triumphant over the dead
big daddy dragon, conveniently forgetting about the aforementioned thousands of dragons that are known
to be in the immediate vicinity.
Touchstone's DVD of Reign of Fire looks great. The images are rich and detailed, even dark-on-dark
scenes. The excellent CGI effects are well-presented, and the format will allow dragon fans
to freeze and replay the many one and two-second shots, so as to better appreciate their artistry.
The disc has some trailers and some interviews with director Bowman, an honored alumnus of the
X-Files TV series. One featurette covers the CGI work, and a second the live-action pyrotechnic
specialist, who indeed had a full workload on this picture. Seeing the enormous amount of labor by the
talented and dedicated people in these featurettes only makes the disappointing film that much
Back in the heyday of monster films, the kind memorialized in All Day's trailer compilation
All Monsters Attack!, the effects were
usually the weak link - we'd sit through an hour or so of indifferent (Tarantula!) or exciting
(Gorgo) plotting to get to the good stuff, and then were satisfied if there was anything at all of
quality on the screen. Now, the ability to have nonstop 'good stuff' all the way through a feature
has resulted in movies without a reason to be, that only exist for wall-to-wall action devoid of
context or story. There's no reason to get involved beyond the level of an arcade game. Reign of Fire
made the mistake of promising one movie (a fantastic story about dragons) and delivering another (a
boring post-apocalyptic struggle) and got the indifferent response it deserved.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reign of Fire rates:
Supplements: Theatrical trailer, "Breathing Life Into The Terror" Making-of featurette,
"If You Can't Stand the Heat" Pyrotechnics featurette, Conversations with director Rob Bowman
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 1, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson