For what must be decades now, Movie Directors and Producers have been trying to come up with imaginative new ways to bring about the end of the world. Disaster and Post-Apocalyptic movies as they are known don’t really have much of a definitive start, I mean on the one hand you can consider Planet of the Apes to be a post-apocalyptic film, but ever since the ascension of Computer Generated Imagery, more imaginative films that really depict a sense of the End of the World have come to light. If you were to start from what I consider to be the ultimate disaster movie: Independence Day, the world has been invaded by aliens, had asteroids and meteors thrown at it, had the weather engulf it, had nature attempt to reclaim it, had hordes of zombies march across it and even had Monsters just wanting to smash it. Despite all the different forms of ending the world however, it is somewhat surprising that only one Director has thought about using Dragons.
Released in 2002 by Spyglass Entertainment and Touchstone Pictures Directed by Rob Bowman and produced by Richard D. Zanuck; Reign of Fire is a Post-Apocalyptic Disaster film set in a future England (four years from now) where Dragons have re-awoken and claimed Earth as their own. It’s up to a few survivors (including a bald Matthew McConaughey) to try and reset the balance of the Food Chain.
In London during the early 2000’s; a young boy called Quinn (Ben Thornton) goes to see his mother Karen (Alice Krige) who is working on a London Underground construction site. While having a quick look into a supposed ‘void’, Quinn awakens a Dragon sleeping in the tunnels. He and his mother try to escape, but his Mother is killed just as the Dragon escapes the tunnels. Through a series of Newspaper clippings, a narrator divulges that soon more dragons appear and are the species responsible for killing the Dinosaurs. It is speculated that the creatures were in hibernation, waiting for the world to replenish itself with food for them to eat. The military responds to the threat, but only help the creatures destroy the earth, and humanity is brought to the edge of Extinction.
In 2020, the now grown up Quinn (Christian Bale) is leader of a community of survivors in a Northumberland Castle. Although most trust Quinn’s leadership, others are defiant, and a small group of survivors led by Eddie (David Kennedy) want to pick some tomatoes as they are starving, and steal a pickup truck, they are attacked by a Dragon however which leads to the death of two members of Eddie’s family. Quinn with the help of his young ward Jared (Scott Moutter) and good friend Creedy (Gerard Butler) rescue Eddie and the rest of his family as the Dragon sets about reclaiming the ash off the burned field. The following day, community communicator Ajay (Alexander Siddig) and Falconer Barlow (Ned Dennehy) discover that a group of American Marauders are on their way to the castle. The community prepares to defend itself, and Quinn is introduced to the Marauder leader Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) who claims to be some kind of Dragon Slayer; he also happens to drive a Chieftain Tank. Quinn decides to let them in cautiously and is impressed that they have access to an AgustaWestland AW109 Helicopter piloted by Alex Jensen (Izabella Scorupco). True to his word, Denton Van Zan goes after the Dragon that attacked the castle’s tomato plantation, and with the help of Quinn manages to kill the creature, at a loss of three of his own men.
Back at the castle, Quinn still has issues as to why a platoon of American soldiers is in Britain. Van Zan and Alex say that all the dragons they have killed are female, and believe there is only one male and that they are going to London to kill it, believing killing it will kill the entire species. They try to enlist Quinn’s help, but he does not want to go back, knowing that his mother was killed there by the Male. Van Zan tries to enlist Quinn’s community by force, but Quinn believes that if they find the male, it will trace them back to the castle. The two of them fight with Van Zan nearly killing Quinn until they are split up. Van Zan and his men head for London, but when they are still 66 miles from there, they are attacked by the male who kills most of Van Zan’s team in mere seconds. Van Zan and Alex survive, but true to Quinn’s word, the Male arrives at the castle and sets it ablaze. Some of the community hides in the basement with the children and Quinn, but as he goes to rescue the others; Creedy is incinerated by another attack from the Male.
The following morning, Van Zan, Alex and the remainder of his team return to the castle and dig out Quinn and his survivors. Quinn comes up with a plan; to go to London just him, Alex and Van Zan in Alex’s chopper. Remembering what Van Zan said about Magic Hour, the point in which the Dragon’s eyesight is at their weakest, they go in to take out the Male. They arrive into London via the Thames, and find lots of smaller dragons being cannibalized by a much larger starving male. They enter into the underground construction site, where Quinn finds the cage his mother died in, and come out onto the surface, where they launch one final attack on the male. Their plan involves using crossbow heads which carry an explosive head, hoping that if they fire it at the right time, the dragon will detonate it and kill itself. Van Zan attempts this at the top of an old chimney, but the attempt fails, and he is eaten by the dragon as he attempts to go at it with his axe. Quinn and Alex lure the Dragon down to the ground, and after a lengthy staring contest, Quinn fires just at the right time. The arrow flies into the Dragons throat, explodes, breaking the creature’s head clearly off its neck. Sometime later, Quinn and the rest of his community build a radio tower, and receive a signal from France. There has been no dragon sighting for three months, and Quinn makes Jared the new community leader, while he and Alex dedicate themselves to rebuilding.
I really like this film. I remember seeing posters for this film when it first came out, the vivid image of the Houses of Parliament ablaze and a mighty dragon as big as the building high above. Unfortunately I did not get to see it until a VHS release the following year, but ever since seeing it, Reign of Fire has remained one of my most enduring films. I easily count it among my favourites, and even if it’s no longer on any of my Top 10’s, it’s a film I refuse to regret, nor never watch again, as one way or another I will always find a time to watch it again. But why exactly do I like it; well that is a question that is actually very hard to answer as I don’t have much of a definitive reason. You don’t necessarily need a reason to like something, if you come away with a positive and enjoyable feeling that should be fine, but to analyse and review a film, I still need to answer the question as to why I like it.
Reign of Fire is pretty unique, I mean how many films are there that involve Dragons taking over the world? Well thinking about it, there are 2: this and Dragon Wars, however the latter does not hold much in comparison to this as that was more an adventure based film (and only actually has one dragon in it), this is more of an action orientated disaster movie. The unique selling point of this film is of course the dragons, but simply putting a Dragon in something doesn’t make it gold. In a recent video, Alan Partridge debated the use of Dragons in Game of Thrones, stating that the beasts were “used to advertise mouthwash in the 80’s”. Simply using dragons in something is not enough. Like all good Movie Monsters, they need to have a purpose, a reason for existence. Now if this was a fantasy adventure movie, they would be like a beast/tyrant that needed defeating. Reign of Fire is a completely different story as it’s not an adventure, nor is it set in the decadent past. The purpose of this movie is to take the world we live in, and bring us down from off our high chairs and to below down on our knees. To do this, we as a race needed humbling, we needed threatening, and in a big way. Yes it could be aliens, it could be weather, but what is more terrifying than not just one giant fire breathing monster, but lots of them. We needed something that was primitive yet deadly, something that could take it all away from us, and in one sweep moving action. Dragons are a perfect fit, as Dragons by folklore accounts are fast flying creatures that can breathe fire. Not only are they hungry beasties, but volatile ones too. So instead of a Tornado laced with Sharks, we got flying fire breathing monsters who want to do nothing more than eat us. Not take over us, enslave us or anything else: just eat us. It’s a simple idea, one that doesn’t require much thought but in turn can still create a lot of depth.
But this film is called Reign of Fire, not Reign of the Ravenous Flying teeth; so there needs to be devastation, one that works on 2 counts. The first is that these Dragons can breathe fire and set about threatening the human race while also using their breath to set fire to as much as possible. The dragons themselves have been given a very unique biology, and though while they could be seen as being like European Dragons, these have been branded and created as to be the most dangerous, devastating creatures imaginable and come with a back story to boot. They killed off the dinosaurs, and had brought the world to extinction once before, the other key ingredient though is that their breath is not just fire, but Napalm. In turn we have a pretty devastating species on our hand, but as to the rest of the planets devastation, the Dragons did not need to do that on their own. Humanity gave them a hand. It’s the double-edged sword philosophy that while we do have an almighty arsenal at our hands, they are destructive pieces of equipment also and though while could be very useful, we do need to take care as to how and when we use them. So equally the Dragons did bring an end to the world, but with a little help from our great Nuclear Weaponry. Into this we are left with a damaged world. A world crippled under the true devastation of nature’s great secret, and along with this we get further vivid imagery to boot. The film’s setting for the most part is taken in the area of Northumberland where the landscape and skies are nearly completely black. Everywhere is just grey and miserable, no light to awaken the heart, no real sky to inspire, just a depressing reminder of the world the survivors have been left with. But if Northumberland was bad, that’s nothing compared to the state of London (“TAKE THAT SOUTHERNERS”). London is a ruin, it looks melted. You look at the buildings, close up and afar, you see vehicles, the water’s edge, the tunnels, the distance, even iconic buildings, and it all looks Melted black. Some form remains, but not much are left, the world has quite literally burned during the reign of the fire beasts (ha ha).
It is in this world we have our plucky band of survivalists. Reign of Fire’s cast is a nice pool of talent ranging from some of Hollywood’s most experienced and well known talent, to people you have more than likely not heard or seen of but still deliver fun roles. This film does a good thing of making interesting tertiary as well as somewhat extra cast who create some fun and interesting moments that are while maybe not pivotal to the film’s being, still are quite fun. These range from some of the films more diverse female cast who hardly speak a word. People like Eddie’s family member’s girlfriend, the day care staff to one woman who does not speak at all but is always brandishing a rifle. From there we get the defiant and annoying Eddie who is more of a hindrance than a challenge, who tries to act as someone who is more trying to speak the truth rather than be a villain, to people like Gideon (Terence Maynard) the Archangel who has some great vocal moments, to people like Ajay, Jerry (Gerry O’Brien) and Barlow who do real jobs within the community to help work and service the community, but in general provide some enjoyable if not completely in-depth roles. The same could be said of Alice Krige’s character and Jason (Dessie Gallagher), who while don’t survive act as a good feeder for important plot points, and in the case of Jason, some early comic relief.
Which brings us neatly round to the film’s main batch of cast. Jared as a character I feel is not implied strongly enough for him to take much of an effect, but it does give Quinn a sense of hope and someone to include, if not executed perfectly. I really do enjoy Gerrard Butler in this film. It was the first time I got to see him in a role of any kind and thought he was a strong personality and also played out the part of being a good friend as well as the sense of reason for Quinn to work with: someone who tries to talk sense into Quinn and acts like a second in command. He is genuinely funny when he wants to, but equally dead serious too and has some brilliant one liners ranging from the funny, to the dead serious. It just feels like a shame that he was not given a much bigger role as he genuinely deserves it and I want to see more of him and Quinn, and only those two. Equally I don’t think Alex was given much of a part neither. She acts like the love interest, but a practical one at that, and who skills impress, but she spends most of the time being very dreary. She is rather glum in every situation and at times can appear to be rather clueless if not in the way and just added for effect. Her pilot skills make her an important part of the film, but from the moment you see her, you want to jump in and tell her to lighten up. It doesn’t make sense about the love interest as it is more or less added before the credits and suggested everywhere else.
It is pretty weird to see Matthew McConaughey without any hair, and with Muscles, and Tattoos. You see him in films like A Time To Kill or Interstellar and see this blond-haired thin man, not necessarily a muscled, tattooed bald-headed soldier. Matthew McConaughey’s role in this film I find is similar in essence (if not in execution) to that of Robert Shaw in Jaws. He is a man with a history, one who is knowledgeable about killing Dragons and believes in military discipline. He acts like a ‘rogue marine’ and shows off power by driving a tank. He is filled with volatile aggression and feels that force is the only option. On the other hand though he has a lot of compassion, he feels greatly for the loss of his men and does work to try and redeem himself for his actions, even if not completely. When he shows compassion, it’s hard for him to stop that whispered panting he does, as though when he shouts he shows his true self. It’s a hard character to really pin down. It kind of filters into this thing of America believing how good they are. America, believing they are the centre of the world, that they are in charge, and only they are in charge. So speaking as a UK-man it is rather pleasing to see them and Van Zan get their comeuppance in this film, America’s last general believing he is unstoppable only for him to be defeated. McConaughey’s last few moments in this film are pretty good though, as we see him try hard to redeem himself, and see not the soldier, but the true warrior, and who he really was.
Christian Bale on the other hand is less can do attitude, more about knowing how to survive. He has a dark past as it was him who unwittingly released the Dragons and whose mother died minutes later. This carries heavy on his conscience and knows he has to work hard to keep others alive, and does this with a passion, even if he comes across as a tyrant. He is the opposite of Van Zan, and has knowledge of the Dragons and what they are capable of. He is looking for hope, but is cautious of false heroes and prophets. He works hard for his community, even going as far as to put on amateur dramatics of the Empire Strikes Back. He has good friendships, and people to rely on, but is brought to logger heads as Van Zan arrives. While Dragons are the main enemy, Van Zan’s arrival stirs up the community in a bad way and has to deal with that. Quinn though is not entirely cautious and will fight his corner. I do however think a golden opportunity is missed when after the Male attacks, that Quinn does not threaten Van Zan with an Execution. Importantly however it is up to Quinn to save the day. Spurred into action by the death of both his mother and the loss of Creedy by the same creature, Quinn goes to London to carry out the Execution of the male. Christian Bale is an amazing actor, and here plays a character that while is a leader, is still just like you or me, and plays a character that is a representation of what it would be like if you or I were in the same position.
Reign of Fire of course requires a large depth of special effects. These range from practical effects like fire and vehicle usage, to more computer orientated effects as well as clever set dresses. The main effect is of course the dragons, which are just fabulous. The designs for the dragons look amazing, possibly the best movie dragons in cinema history. The close up points of them eating people looks realistic but also terrifying, and the final scenes when faced with the monolithic male are just impressive, ranging from them staring Quinn in the face to the point of even the creature’s head rolling and rocking off its own neck. But Special Effects aren’t and don’t have to be everything as Reign of Fire is supported by a brilliant soundtrack (composed by Ed Shearmur). The soundtrack is very tense in its nature and the tension really does not disappear from any of its pieces. The theme of the arriving Marauders for instance is of course very tense and does sound very military in its style, but it’s also rather crazy and jumpy, trying to showcase a level of new fear and a lack of understanding in an increasing threatening nature.
This military theme does continue as the army enters the castle compound, showcasing a theme of might and strength, looking like military heroes coming to save the day (even if it’s a little confusing as to why they are here in the first place). Then as the film continues it returns to the silent tension, such as when the convey heads for London, to stark scary moments as the male dragon attacks the castle, back to more action orientated scenes as the helicopter and the trio walk into London, to of course the final preparations before the big battle moments of battle, all drawn together with a nice, gentle but still pretty rocky credits theme: Burn by Mad at Gravity.
While it does have its moments where it could have explored further, and moments where execution lacked: I really like this film. It’s idea, it’s themes, it’s characters, it’s Dragons, it’s effects, it’s music, all of which come together to create a near completely unique experience. Some cast members could have more and less in places, and other bit and bobs could be a tiny bit clearer, but through its ideas of a world dominated by dragons, and humanity brought to the edge of extinction by myth, when brought together create an exceptionally enjoyable film, and one I still love to this day. Its effects and setting are beautiful, its music but more importantly its design are magnificent. It’s not just a Dragon Movie, it is so much more, and does a lot more than most.: it shows the raw destructive power of these creatures and also shows that there could be a lot more truth to myth than the Bayeux Tapestry is letting on. A real classic of its generation that is really worth a watch while at the same time teaches an important lesson which is that: if you are using the London Underground, don’t shine a torch in a ‘Void’.