Most post apocalypse films use science to explain away the end of the world. Whether it be rampant global warming, viruses escaped from labs, or our own robot creations rising up against us, it tends to have some basis in reality that can be explained away, and often comes from humanity having done something it shouldn’t have. And whilst Reign of Fire certainly lays the blame for the end of the world at human feet, it’s not the kind of reason you’d expect from this genre. Instead of humans playing god and paying the price, we end up digging in the wrong direction when working on the London Underground, and unleash dragons into the world.
Reign of Fire begins in the early 2000s, where we join a young boy, Quinn, and his mother as she works on part of an expansion project for the London Underground, digging new tunnels beneath the city. When one of the machines discovers a huge cavern, Quinn goes into the ancient chamber to have a look around. However, inside he finds a creature from nightmares: a dragon. The creature escapes from the cavern, killing the workers, and reaches the surface. Quinn manages to survive, but his mother dies in the chaos.
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We then jump forward twenty years in time to 2020, where Quinn (Christian Bale) is part of a group of survivors holed up in an old castle in Northumberland. We learn that in the years between the release of the dragon, many more of the creatures began to appear, and their population skyrocketed to millions. Scientists concluded that the dragons were responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, and for ushering in the ice age, and that they may bring humanity to a similar end. Over the next twenty years this prediction is proved right, as the majority of the human race is destroyed by the creatures.
Quinn and his community struggle to survive in this dragon infested world, but hope for a better future appears when a group of American soldiers appear, led by the charismatic Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey). The group claim to have killed dozens of dragons, and that they’ve figured out a plan that could result in the destruction of the entire species.
One of the things that really helps Reign of Fire is that the film leans into the ridiculous concept without ever treating it as anything other than completely serious. There are no cheesy one-liners, no camp; it’s treated with the same level of realism and horror that any other post apocalyptic movie is, it just happens to be that there are huge dragons flying around. Well, they’re actually Wyverns if you want to get technical, but they get called dragons in media so often people don’t seem to distinguish the two anymore.
The terror of the dragons isn’t downplayed, and the very first scenes of the movie where we get to see their awakening, and the resulting loss of Quinn’s mother are done in such a way to make it clear to the audience that these are creatures of terror, that they bring death and destruction, and that no one in this film is untouched by the tragedy. The actors have a sombre quality to them during the early scenes of the film where you get to see their small community. They’re doing their best to survive, to keep hope alive, but many of them seem resigned to the fact that they’re all going to die sooner or later, whether from dragon attack or starvation.
Whilst Christian Bale is a decent enough lead in this, and that he certainly plays the tired, grizzled leader well it’s Matthew McConaughey who steals the show as dragon killer Van Zan. McConaughey brings his usual level of charm and eccentricity to the role, and manages to be intimidating, charming, funny, and frightening all at the same time. It’s an unusual role for him, and it’s rare to see him as bulked up and buff as he is here. (As a side note, if you ever get the chance to read his autobiography Greenlights you definitely should for his wild stories, and his attempted exercise regime for this film is certainly bizarre, as he would drink a double shot of tequila for breakfast, run five miles barefoot through the desert, and wrestle cows. And you can certainly see that strange energy in his performance here.)
Despite the age of the film the effects hold up pretty well, and whilst there are a few cases of the CGI not quite looking perfect it doesn’t look awful. The practical effects are all very good, and the sets, costumes, and props help to keep the world feeling real and lived in, even if the dragons sometimes look a little obviously fake.
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Reign of Fire is never going to be seen as a great piece of cinema, but it can be a decent enough piece of entertainment. If you’re looking for something a bit ridiculous with a decent cast this film certainly ticks those boxes. And in a world where so many movies take a more science based take on the end of the world it’s fun to go a little fantastical sometimes.
Reign of Fire was released in the UK on 23rd August 2002.