Reign of Fire



Rob Bowman : USA 2002 : 101 mins

It may seem perverse to criticise Reign of Fire – a film in which the earth is ravaged and ruled by a race of giant, napalm-breathing dragons – on the grounds of plausibility, but the watchability of any movie, whether Being John Malkovich or Sweet Sixteen, relies on a basic suspension of disbelief. Reign falls down on this fundamental issue – while its biggest dragon soars on huge wings full of holes, the script’s plausibility gaps are so vast and numerous that the project never has any hope of getting airborne.

The warning signs kick in very early on, in a prologue supposedly set in the London of 2008 – but in which advertising hoardings from 2001 are clearly and distractingly visible. Making only the very lamest of nods to the vastly superior Hammer horror Quatermass and the Pit, in which a long-dormat alien force is disturbed by the construction of a new London Underground station, Reign starts with an extension to the Docklands Line awakening a colossal dragon from what’s presumably a very protracted kind of nap.

It isn’t made clear, but it’s implied that the catalyst for this disastrous event is the carelessness of schoolboy Quinn Abercromby (Ben Thornton) – who suffers an immediate personal tragedy when the dragon’s rise to the surface results in the death of his engineer mother Karen (Alice Krige). This prologue is reasonably well handled, though it’s slightly odd that director Bowman feels the need to so directly quote his own previous feature, The X-Files movie – both films start with a young boy making a terrible discovery in a dark, underground cavern that makes his eyes go a strange colour.

We then spool forward twenty years via a cost-cutting, very unconvincing montage of magazines reporting the dragons’ rapid conquest of Earth. Well-spoken posh-kid Quinn has somehow grown into a growling Cockney adult (Christian Bale) who leads one of the few remaining bands of humans, hiding out in a castle in ‘Northumberland, England’ – unconvincingly doubled-for by rural Ireland. Somehow managing to escape the attentions of the marauding dragons, the colony is nevertheless finding it difficult to get along on minimal supplies.

Things seem to pick up when a squadron of American tanks and helicopters arrive, led by swaggering tough-guy Denton Van Zan (top-billed Matthew McConaughey) who immediately challenges Quinn’s authority. The two men violently clash, but eventually resolve their differences and set out to London on a quest to destroy the Rodan-like ‘king’ dragon in his lair and thus end the serpents’ terrible reign.

The script credit is shared by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg – on this evidence, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they turned out to be a trio of teenagers who’d dashed off the screenplay during breaks in fantasy Sword & Sorcery role-playing at the local Games Workshop. It feels like a very sloppy first draft of something that might have ended up as a passable monster movie – and director Bowman can do very little to rectify the damage, apart from allowing cinematographer Adrian Biddle to bathe scene after scene in a succession of dour blue-grey filters.

Only at the very end do we see through the dragons’ eyes, with some intriguingly high-contrast images that give the film a much needed boost, though it’s all far too late in the day. Richard D Hoover’s special effects, meanwhile, are serviceable at best, the dragons emerging as less interesting cousins of the napalm-spewing bug variants from Paul Verhoeven‘s Starship Troopers.

More serious are the crippling casting issues: McConaughey, despite much bluster and cigar-chomping, is a very pale echo of his obvious inspiration, Robert Shaw’s Quint from Jaws. As his rival alpha-male, Bale is only marginally more convincing, and one suspects that Izabella Scorupco’s helicopter-pilot Alex would be more than capable of holding her own with both – if the script allowed her to be anything other than the most perfunctory kind of love-interest. There are a couple of impressive moments – including a deliriously heavy-metal-LP-cover image when a bare-chested, axe-wielding McConaughey leaps through the air towards a flying dragon – but only a couple, and certainly nowhere near enough to sustain interest across what’s essentially 101 minutes of half-baked adolescent fantasy.

22nd September, 2002
(seen 19th, UGC Boldon)

by Neil Young
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