Reign of Fire Reviewby Eugene Novikov (eugenen AT wharton DOT upenn DOT edu)
August 7th, 2002
Reign of Fire (2002)
Reviewed by Eugene Novikov
Starring Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler.
Directed by Rob Bowman.
"There's nothing magical about it!"
Reign of Fire begins with a beguiling, convincing portrayal of a post-apocalyptic society, then concludes with an absurd, abrupt mishmash of dragonslaying bravado and questionable biology. It's been forever since we've seen a good all-stops-out dragon movie -- I liked Dragonheart, but that was more of a save-the-dragon epic than anything else -- and this long-awaited creature feature does little to feed the addiction. Strange that director Rob Bowman is a veteran of The X-Files, an extraordinarily abstract and intelligent body of work; he would have done well to transplant the show's elegance to this clunky project.
The majority of Reign of Fire is set in an England ravaged by dragon attacks, the human population all but wiped out and the remainder living in small colonies barely able to hang on with the constant threat of an ambush. One such colony is led by Quinn (Christian Bale) who, as a small boy, witnessed the escape of the first dragon from a mineshaft. They have settled into an efficient, if precarious, routine -- the children's nightly prayer includes admonitions on what to do if they see a dragon, their alarm system is down to a science, the adults act out a modified version of The Empire Strikes Back for the kiddies -- but Quinn's ranks begin to grow restless, pushing for an attack on the dragon base in what used to be London. For his part, Quinn just wants to stay put, fight it out, survive, look to the future.
One day the alarm sounds as per usual, though instead of announcing a dragon in the vicinity, it heralds the arrival of a cavalry of tanks and helicopters led by the American, psychotic "Dragonslayer" Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey). Van Zan propounds a theory: he thinks that of the millions of dragons who populate the Earth, only one is a male, and that male pollinates all of the eggs. Kill the male, according to Van Zan, and you kill the species.
I did, as I mentioned, enjoy the film's opening scenes, which give a reasonably clever portrayal of a people who, with all of their technology essentially wiped out, are forced to start all over, living in constant fear. I appreciated the way Quinn is all but worshipped by the colony's children, not as a fearless killer, but as a protector. I liked what became of prayer, which was logical because these people have more important things to worry about than "as I lay me down to sleep."
Once Van Zan shows up, the movie does a complete 180, losing the keen intelligence and observation that I had been admiring. I suppose it's symbolic: the arrival of the Americans not only turns these peaceful Brits' world upside down, but points the movie on a direct road to hell too. The idea of having a single male dragon that pollinated enough eggs to destroy human civilization is absurd garbage that not only makes no sense from a biological standpoint, but makes things way too easy for our heroes, robbing us of the grandiose film experience I was expecting.
What kills the movie is its failure to truly translate its conflict to a global scale. Aside from a brief montage that shows us, on maps (maps!), how quickly the dragons took over, we never get the feel that this is a monumental conflict with nothing less than the human species at stake. Quinn, Van Zan and Faceless Love Interest (Isabella Scorupco) simply go to what used to be London and take out the alpha male in what takes 20 minutes on the screen and probably about that long in real time.
The special effects aren't bad, though just as the movie fails to convince us that its interspecies battle is globally important, the CGI doesn't convey the size of these creatures. They don't look small, but they aren't even as frightening as the benevolent herbivore dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park flicks, because those reptiles towered over us where as these just flop around. And when a dragon movie can't wow us with its dragons, there isn't much hope.
©2002 Eugene Novikov
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