I had hoped Reign of Fire would be lean and mean like Pitch Black or Deep Blue Sea, (both of which are excellent alternatives). Reign of Fire is neither smart enough nor mean enough to measure up to these humble ideals, but it’s on the right track.
Dragons Are Real
PG-13 for fiery death
Deep Blue Sea, a shark movie with teeth.
The movie has a pretty good premise. Dragons are real. Their fire-breathing comes not from magic, but from two glandular chemicals that, when combined in the air, form a “natural napalm.” The dragons of yore died off, living only in human legend, but a small clutch has been hibernating, waiting for the earth to repopulate itself with delicious higher mammals.
A little introductory scene is set in the present, when the dragons are awakened, but the film itself is set ten years hence, when humanity has pretty much lost the fight. The war with the dragons wiped out all the cities. Most of the people either died in the war or were eaten. Only sparse patches of humanity still survive.
With their food supply gone, the dragons are starting to starve, and mankind has fixated on dragon genocide as one last little moral victory. But even that’s a pipe dream. All the people left on Earth, even the dragonslayers, are outnumbered and outclassed by their reptilian nemeses.
Dennis Hopper Reborn
Matthew McConaughey is an interesting fellow. Before the movie another critic was talking about McConaughey showing up to the Toronto Film Festival in a Hawaiian skirt. The critic wondered whether McConaughey had lost his grip.
Then the movie started, and in Reign of Fire, McConaughey takes on a new screen persona. Shaved bald and tattooed, McConaughey struts around like a gruff sociopath. His earnest intensity and wide, red-eyed stare imply a religious fanaticism that excuses him from ordinary human morality. Without exploding, he always seems on the verge of explosive violence, not unlike Dennis Hopper. One wonders if maybe he has lost his grip. If so, Reign of Fire is the beneficiary. The film’s “regular” hero, Quinn (Christian Bale), gets upstaged every time.
Bale doesn’t have an immediately recognizable, iconic look, but he’s extremely versatile. His beard and Irish accent hide his identity well. If you know him only from Newsies or American Pscyho, you might not recognize him.
Promise and Compromise
The movie shows a lot of promise. In addition to its fertile premise and memorable performances, it has the look and feel of those late-seventies, early-eighties, big budget horror sci-fi flicks (cinematographer Adrian Biddle worked on both Alien and Aliens). The high-contrast lighting; rich, expressive music; and haunted interiors of Alien and The Terminator seem to have inspired the look of Reign of Fire.
Unfortunately, the script turns that “promise” into “compromise.” There are lots of little plot holes. None of them are so big that they overshadow the special effects. But there are so many of them that it forces you to choose between turning off your brain and being constantly distracted.
For example, where did the dragonslayers get the fuel for their tanks and helicopter? Or if the crops weren’t ready to be harvested, as Quinn says, why are there ripe red tomatoes growing on the vine? If all the world’s major cities are being destroyed, how come Time is still able to publish full-color magazines? And how are the magazines distributed to the burning cities on the cover, much less to Ireland?
Just thinking about these holes makes me mad. Someone smarter could have taken the same basic script and worked around these plot holes without ruining the rest of the movie. What laziness! What a waste!
Guys and Dolls
After the movie, I heard one woman say how awful this movie was, and her friends seemed inclined to agree. But out in the lobby, I heard a man say something about “not in the ten best, but maybe in the fifty best....”
If I had to choose sides, I’d agree with the woman, if only because her reaction was less hyperbolic. Nevertheless, if the gals go off to see Ya-Ya Sisterhood, maybe the guys can sneak into Reign of Fire.