Reign of Fire

An edited version of this rant review appeared on the very lovely Geraldine Clark Hellery’s blog during the build-up to the Nun & Dragon release (*cough* still available! still has a story by me in! *cough*). I thought since Gerard Butler popped up in a post the other day, I’d do the full version on here now that a suitable period of time has passed.

Fair Warning – I do go on a bit about a movie that appeared in 2002 and promptly sank like a fucking rock.

So. On with the show. What’s the deal with Reign of Fire? Is it really a bad movie, or is it a sadly underrated gem?

Awkwardly enough, the truth lies somewhere in between. Things were never going to go well for it. Prior to its release the marketing team made some terrible mistakes in promoting the film, the most damaging being the creation of a poster that made the apparent promise of a helicopter versus dragon dogfight.

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There *is* a helicopter in the movie – an Agusta A109 – and I count eight distinctive silhouettes of fully-armed Apaches in the poster. Failure to deliver is the worst crime that we can weigh against Reign of Fire, and it’s not even the movie’s fault.

Poor marketing isn’t the end of the world, but a myriad of smaller flaws combined to drive nail after nail into the coffin of what could have been the definitive dragon/apocalypse film.

The characterisation is weak.

The men are caricatures, with Christian Bale as Quinn, who we meet as an adult (following his VO narration of the dragonocalypse) digging away at the foundations of a castle. Contractual obligations being what they are, he has his shirt off and is working away with a muscular vigour that seems somewhat at odds with the idea that the last of humanity is scratching at the very limits of survival.

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“Bad news. We’re out of chocolate protein shakes. Only got cherry and hazelnut left. War is Hell.”

Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), summoned into the tale by the Plot Gods, is even worse: a grimy, sweat-soaked Techno Viking who demonstrates his tenuous grip on what sanity he has left by leaning forward a lot and fixing people with his boggle-eyed stare.

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Whatever you say about Denton van Zan, you’ve got to respect a man who is happy to Wil. E. Coyote himself off a building. Yes, that’s a verb now.

The sole exception is Creedy, played by Gerard Butler, who serves as Jiminy Cricket to Bale’s Pinnochio, a lone voice of (admittedly sarcastic) reason in a world given over to ridiculous idealogical clashes.

The women, by comparison, are non-existent. Alice Krige gets maybe a minute of screen time, including a memorably brilliant establishing shot of her flagrantly ignoring all forms of workplace safety by using a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher underground to flash-chill a can of beer. Added to the fact that her twelve year old son can get on-site and down the work lift with only the offer of a cigarette by way of challenge, the appearance of a dragon can be perhaps read as less a sign of the end times and more a fast-track past the red tape of an industrial tribunal.

Izabella Scorupco appears later as Alex: helicopter pilot, inexplicable Van Zan devotee, and token love interest. What little dialogue she gets is mostly spent in defence of one man, or expressing sympathy for the other. I guess we’re meant to be happy that she gets to fly the helicopter?

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“Whee! This is symbolic of my agency! Did you know I’m also a successful singer?”

What it gets right, though, is the thing that should have been promised in the marketing – a post apocalyptic vision where people are just trying their absolute best to cope and survive. In the face of the setup – dragons burninating everything until there’s nothing left to burninate – Quinn has taken the course of action that makes the most sense. He’s gathered as many people as he can, taken them to the most remote and defensible point he can safely reach, and he has started digging. Ultimately, he’s hoping that the dragons will run out of food and the matriarch will go back into hibernation before he does. The fact that she will eventually return is immaterial – the scale of her sleep/wake cycle is so vast that it is – on the timeline of the thirty or so families he’s trying to protect – essentially meaningless.

It’s a great concept, and it’s a shame that more time isn’t spent on it. The balance of people to food and the constant risk and consequences of exposure are touched on briefly in a very satisfying and surprisingly well-handled way. The group that disobey Quinn aren’t rebels – they’re just hungry. As much as they let the collective down, he cannot bring himself to punish them because he understands their desperation. The atmosphere and character of the community shines when it is shown as being just that – a community. By far the most memorable moment is seeing Bale and Butler act out the climax of The Empire Strikes Back to an audience of wide-eyed toddlers (bonus marks for Butler for his reassuring “it’s okay, I’ve still got my hand” wave) and it’s a genuine shame that we don’t see more of it.

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Instead, we are passed over to a traditional Hollywood arc for the final third. Creedy is dispatched in an act of sacrifice that prevents him from picking holes in anything that follows, and Quinn throws every belief he has out the window before flying down to London to fight the dragon.

There’s a saying that goes, no-one ever sets out to make a bad movie, and yet bad movies still get made. In hindsight, it’s easy to see where Reign of Fire went badly wrong. It’s also easy to see where it went right, and could have gone much better. A little less man-versus-dragon and a little more of the human side of things and it could have become a classic.

Don’t believe me? Look at 28 Days Later, which also came out in 2002.

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Putting aside the incredibly weak setup (even the most ardent of animal liberators would know that opening a cage to an animal that’s been sorely abused, sticking your face in and smiling at it is a bad idea), it is a brilliant movie about how people try to cope with the end of the world. Yes, there are zombies, but the zombies are not the main event. It’s how everyone else reacts that drives the story forward, and it’s that difference that makes 28 Days Later the classic, and Reign of Fire the almost-ran.