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Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire
(2002)

(SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-Files that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire. And then Elektra. And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.

Dragonheart had already proved a moderate success as far as attempts to do for dragons what Jurasssic Park did for dinosaurs went: make them believable to a modern audience. That one now looks very creaky, and Rob Cohen is no one’s idea of a shit-hot shooter – although that’s probably the least of the negatives that come to mind – but it was helped considerably by Sean Connery’s dragon’s burr. Alas, the thinking that accompanied Reign of Fire’s conception was: what dragons really needed was unremittingly grimdark, apocalyptic trappings and characters. Namely, a determinedly “adult” approach that was the precise antithesis of the “magical” appeal one usually associates with dragon lore and legends (of course, Rudolf Steiner had it that dragons were real, and indeed that the Archaeopteryx breathed fire). As stricken as the Peter Jackson Hobbits are, one thing he didn’t go too far wrong with was his realisation of Smaug. Here, though.

The guys who came up with the idea for Reign of Fire, Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka, haven’t mustered a writing credit since, which is what is often what happens in Hollywood when your movie goes down like a bag of cold sick. Matt Greenberg, who came in on the screenplay, co-wrote Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (you know, the one that was a better return to Laurie Strode’s character than the recent one that entirely ignored his one) and would go on to pen adaptations of Stephen King novels 1408 and Pet Sematary. Between them, they were unable to come up with anything much more than unearthed dragons wreaking havoc on the Earth and ending society as we know it. Because even if you think that premise holds promise, what they do with it is utterly trite.

The most striking thing about Reign of Fire – in between inclinations to vaguely nod off – is how influential its tone has been. For a flop, it manages to set the template for the next two decades’ dour SF/fantasy, both in terms of humourless conception and grey, drab cinematography (arguably, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla also had something of this, but it was generally much larkier in sensibility). From here, you move on to the later Harry Potters, to the Planet of the Apes reboots, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the diligently dark Dark Knight and absurdly so Supes. I’m sure some would frame the wasted Earth as paralleling real world events (War of the Worlds received kudos for precisely that, as if the berg ever had a political bone in his body that hadn’t been artificially inserted and undergone rigorous vetting by ILM), but Peterka and Chabot came up with the idea in 1996, and Greenberg rejigged it in 2000, before 9/11 (ahhhh, but that is what predictive programming is for, I hear you say. Which is a fair point).

Mostly, though, Reign of Fire is thoroughly disappointing in terms of trying to trace thematic intent or even a semblance of innocent coincidence. The most noteworthy element is the dating, with the unearthing of the prologue, witnessed by young Quinn Abercromby (Ben Thornton), taking place in 2008 – the year of the financial meltdown – before jumping to 2020 – the year of the… well, there are lots of words for it, none of them polite. We see newspaper headlines from 2010, of the “Is this the End?” and “Paris in Flames” variety, and learn that nukes did no good in repelling the dragon menace (well, like duh). I guess one could construe from their backstory – “A species that turned the dinosaurs to dust” – that they are in some respects akin to those currently implementing a not-so-great reset. The dragons, after all are figurative reptiles who hibernate after having a ruddy good chomp, so as to repopulate the planet for another ruddy good chomp. Dragon food or loosh, it’s all the same.

One might also point to the special relationship between Britain and America (the latter march in to save us, despite an inevitable backlash: “Only one thing worse than a dragon. Americans”). Matthew McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan (the what?) arriving with all the firepower available might even be seen as somewhat redolent of valorous GIs arriving in a war-torn London – or Northumbria. There’s also the requirement to obey the rules imposed by the nominated leaders (“If you go outside those gates, you jeopardise this community… You’re staying out there, not coming back”). Even the line “It’s a community, not a prison” is quite reflective of current times, although at least one has a choice in Reign’s dragon-infested future (or present), There’s also a scene where Van Zan forcibly attempts to draft some of the now grown up Quinn’s men.

Evidently, these dragons need an Achilles heel, so they’ve obliged that if you kill the sole male, that’s it for them. Plus, they very much are not a crepuscular species. And, if you fire a harpoon down their throats, they find it terminally uncomfortable.

As decent as Bowman’s direction is, and as solid as the dragon effects are (some of the fire ones are showing their age), none of it can salvage the essential lack of interest or dramatic tension within the story. This isn’t uncommon with the monster movie (clump forward the recent Godzillas). Unless you introduce an Aliens element or throw in some human antagonists (Aliens again), you can too easily produce something rather inert in terms of dynamics vs spectacle. The saddest thing about Reign of Fire’s failure is that my hopes for a big screen adaptation of DC Thompson’s Victor comic strip Tunnels of Terror, about a giant mole causing havoc in London, were completely scuppered (admittedly, those hopes were negligible in the first place).

There are moves to address the need for an engaging human element through the developing dispute/ comradeship between Quinn and Van Zan. Unfortunately, both lead actors, by dint of accentuating the dramatic sterility of the material, succeed only in doubling down on the inherent problems. Grown-up Quinn arrives in the strapping form of Christian Bale, earthy of accent and gravelly of voice (that part might have been a pitch for Batman). He’s exactly the laugh riot this doesn’t need (Bale’s relationship with Hollywood leading man parts of this ilk is patchy, as can also be seen in Terminator Salvation and Exodus: Gods and Kings). He’s so method in his humourless grimacing, he kills any dying spark the proceedings might have.

McConaughey, meanwhile, shaving his balding barnet and bulking up like a silly fool set on a slew of failed action vehicles (Sahara, Fool’s Gold), seems to have decided to compete with Bale at the method game: Alexander Siddig, sadly underused, told how everyone was informed McConaughey was to be called Van Zan throughout the shoot. Bale, who seemed to have been heading in a Machinist direction, took one look at the size of his co-star and crash-bulked up (his reasoning that those in the future would be starving is sound, his rationale that Quinn needed to be believable against Van Zan in a fight scene less so).

If they, together, despite gritting their teeth and going over the top, represent a charisma vacuum, the support is also patchy. Izabella Scorupo is at the tail end of her brief post-Goldeneye cachet, while Alice Krige appears only in the prologue. Most welcome is Gerard Butler, pre-refashioning himself as a B-level action star. Indeed, his performance and manner here is strangely James McAvoy-ish. I guess once you’ve gone all 300 on your six pack, there’s no going back, no matter how chunky you become.

Reign of Fire’s an entirely flavourless affair, and both this and the entirely flavourless Elektra suggest Bowman was probably right to retreat to TV (where he quickly attached himself to the underseen Groundhog Day show Day Break). The re-enactment of The Empire Strikes Back for children growing up in a TV and technology-deprived age has been rightly noted as a creative highpoint in the movie, but it’s about the only one. The irony is, this did nothing to stem the tide of austere takes on fantasy material: King Arthur, without the sorcery. Troy, without the gods. Like a dragon’s breath, they seemed perversely intent on sucking all the air out of the room.

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