Reign of Fire (review)

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The Power of Myth

The poster for Reign of Fire is so cool, what with the dragons and the London skyline and the apocalyptic orange color scheme and the — what’s this? — attack helicopters in the background? How much will this movie rock? I wondered, completely prepared for Independence Day-level global devastation by dragons while the puny humans put aside their puny differences in order to fight back. With totally dragonhide-kicking Black Hawk helicopters.

I’d still like to see that movie. This is not that movie.
What Reign of Fire is, it turns out, is what happens when you throw Hollywood money at a 1950s English-style end-of-the-world science-fiction movie. You know the kind, in which, 20 years after the whatever that destroyed the world, a ragtag group of doughty Brits are holed up, just trying to survive, led by one or two stalwart and really kinda cute guys (in this case, Christian Bale and Gerard Butler). It’s usually a small story, just about the new dynamic that develops, the new mini-civilization, the new society these few survivors create, a story contained in their cave or their bomb shelter or their tiny village.

And Reign starts out that way, the first half hour or so full of tantalizing hints of the fascinating mythopoeic movie this could have been. Quinn (Bale: Shaft, American Psycho) and his buddy Creedy (Butler: Harrison’s Flowers) are holed up, in an old castle somewhere northish of London, with what they believe may be the last survivors of mankind, scratching out a living in the literal ashes of civilization. It’s 20 years after the then 12-year-old Quinn watched the first dragon, awakened from a slumber of millennia by underground construction work, take flight, and they’ve pretty much trashed the whole planet in the interim. (Glimpses of that ID4 movie can be seen in the news magazines and newspapers Quinn has salvaged from just prior to the collapse of civilization.)

In the voiceover exposition that gets us quickly through those 20 years, there are nods to the much greater story that could have been — Quinn mentions the ancients who turned real dragons into myth, for example — the story of how humans create mythology and the purposes myth serve. In a scene that is simultaneously funny and startling, on the hindbrain level that myth touches, Quinn and Creedy entertain the children of their survivors’ community by acting out a scene from The Empire Strikes Back, transforming Luke and Vader into “The White Knight” and “The Black Knight” (and they perform it in a church, to boot). Then they segue immediately into the kids’ bedtime prayers, which have nothing to do with the Christianity of the dead world and everything to do with the reality they live with now: the “prayers” are instructions, what to do to survive the dragons. (A scene much later shows that even these practical prayers, to no god but that of pragmatism, soothe and comfort in times of extreme stress.) Here it is, right here on a platter: the power of myth, the purpose of religion.

Here and gone just as quickly. Because of the arrival of something Quinn and Creedy call second worst after dragons: Americans. Which serves as the movie’s own metacommentary on itself. There was a nice little movie going until Matthew McConaughey had to show up with tanks and guns and attitude and a suspicious-sounding story about daring to challenge the dragons’ command of the sky and fly the Atlantic on two engines to come to England and hunt the big reptiles with his band of hardy soldiers. McConaughey’s (Frailty, The Wedding Planner) Van Zan is certifiably insane, and what with that and his constant cigar champing, I kept expecting him to snort, “I love the smell of natural dragon napalm in the morning.” He never does say that, but his mere presence turns the film from Interesting With Perhaps Something to Say About Life, The Universe, And Everything into So Bad That You Can’t Help But Have Guilty Fun With It But Still It Could Have Been Better.

Van Zan — and the film — have an unbelievably simplistic plan to rid the world of dragons: There’s only one male (or so Van Zan says), and if they kill him, that’s it. Sure, that means no more babies, but don’t dragons live for hundreds of years? That’s what the myths say, anyway… but, oh yeah, we’ve forgotten all about myth. And forget about armies of guys going after this one big, mean bull dragon: this time it’s personal. It’s always personal in Hollywood movies.

Yes, the dragons are pretty darn cool, and the fighting-the-dragons stuff is unlike anything we’ve ever seen onscreen before. But that’s not enough when we could have had so much more. Reign of Fire could have stirred the soul — instead its too-loud soundtrack merely shakes you in your seat. The filmmakers forgot something that Quinn and Creedy could have reminded them of: “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” There’s a lot of power here — firepower, that is — and not enough Force.

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