Reign of Fire (Touchstone Pictures, 2002)


I see a dark sail on the horizon
Set under a dark cloud that hides the sun
Bring me my Broadsword and clear understanding
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman
Get up to the roundhouse on the cliff-top standing
Take women and children and bed them down.

Bring me my Broadsword and clear understanding
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman
Bless with a hard heart those who surround me
Bless the women and children who firm our hands
Put our backs to the North wind. Hold fast by the river
Sweet memories to drive us on for the Motherland.

Jethro Tull

To the mythologically challenged, Reign of Fire probably appears to be no more than a standard special effects-laden action movie. The struggle against big bad scary monsters is a great fallback for directors who want to pack a lot of action (and explosions) into a two hour span. Independence Day and the Alien franchise gave us horrible monsters from outer space. Godzilla used an ordinary iguana mutated by radiation to spread mayhem. Jurassic Park brought us the carnage caused by resurrected dinosaurs. And now Reign of Fire calls on that oldest and most fearsome of creatures, the dragon, to inspire terror, awe, and probably another line of plastic action figures.

As a testosterone driven adrenaline-fest, Reign of Fire is an acceptable if not outstanding effort. To the more mythologically aware, however, Reign of Fire has quite a bit to offer in addition to an endorphin high. There is food for thought here, and there are examples of much that we rely upon folklore, myth, and fantasy to illuminate in our lives.

Reign of Fire opens in present day London, where a civil engineering project has broken into a subterranean cavern. Asleep in this cave are the remnants of an ancient and terrible species. Young Quinn Abercromby, son of the lead project engineer (Alice Krige), is present when an awakened dragon emerges. He survives his encounter with the beast, but his mother is killed.

Flash forward to 2020, when the rapidly reproducing and rapacious dragons have nearly destroyed the planet. Immune even to atomic weapons (in fact, they prefer to consume the ash of organic matter so they thrive on nuclear devastation), intelligent and vicious, the dragons are now beginning to run out of food and are even eating each other. Humanity survives in small and isolated pockets. Quinn is the de facto leader of a band of these survivors, and they live in hiding in an ancient Northumberland castle. Terrified of both dragons and sporadic encounters with marauding bandits, nearing starvation, the survivors (many of whom are children rescued by Quinn) are desperate. Quinn and his friend Creedy (Gerard Butler) are faced with insubordination from the panicking refugees.

Enter the cavalry. Denton Van Zan leads a band of Americans who have managed to assume that most inspiring and venerated of ancient titles, dragonslayer. They have not only cobbled together a fairly high-tech armory, but have devised a heroic if not necessarily foolproof method of battling the dragons. And wild-eyed, fervid Van Zan believes that he has the key to ultimate freedom from the demonic creatures. Van Zan believes that the dragons reproduce like fish, with one male fertilizing many females and the females returning to their birthplace to spawn. Therefore, he and his army are on their way to London seeking the male dragon that must be fertilizing all of the females. "Kill the male," he says, " and you kill the species."

Quinn initially distrusts Van Zan, but quickly takes his measure eye to eye, in the way that only men can. He invites the small army into the castle. After Quinn aids Van Zan and his skydiving "archangels" in a bloody and disastrous battle against a dragon, Van Zan asks for volunteers to join his forces in the raid on London. Though a few volunteer, Quinn is convinced that the foolhardy mission will bring down disaster upon the castle, and he refuses to join them. Van Zan and his followers head for the city, and Quinn is proven all too prescient when death and destruction are unleashed on Van Zan's convoy and immediately thereafter, Quinn's castle.

With little left of the castle, Quinn's only option to protect his people is to join Van Zan and helicopter pilot Alexandra on a last desperate and suicidal trek into London. He guides Van Zan and Alexandra into the heart of the city, where armed only with one automatic weapon and a few explosive tipped crossbow bolts, they must enter into a final confrontation with the formidable male dragon.

There is little suspense here as to the outcome of the trip. The dragon must be slain, the hero must prevail. This is a retelling of a myth as old as human history, the slayer of the ravening beast is an archetype we need to believe in.  Reign of Fire, far from being merely the latest in the monster movie genre, is but a new offshoot of the World Tree of our collective consciousness. Consider this passage from ancient Babylonian myth, as the hero-god Marduk battles the dragon Tiamat:

Marduk and Tiamat prepared for battle. Marduk armed himself with a net and club, and a bow that fired arrows of lightning. He rode upon a chariot pulled by four fierce horses, accompanied by the four winds.

The battle began and Marduk spread his net to capture Tiamat. She quickly opened her mouth wide to swallow him. Seeing his chance, Marduk sent one of the winds inside Tiamat, blasting down her throat and blowing her jaws apart. Marduk then drew his bow and fired an arrow through her gaping mouth, straight into her heart.

Director Rob Bowman, an X-Files alumnus, is certainly familiar with myth and legend. This movie connects with the hidden world much more adeptly and subtly than The X-Files, though.

As an ordinary action film, Reign of Fire contains several plot devices that are never satisfactorily explained. According to the biology of known species, it is highly unlikely that an entire species would be able to survive with only one male in evidence. And where does Van Zan get the fuel necessary to fly across the ocean and trek across Britain? Not to mention flying battle missions in a helicopter on a regular basis. However, logic and action-adventure films are of necessity frequently only passing acquaintances. Six-shooters that fire dozens of rounds or cars that explode following the most minor of accidents are mainstays of the genre, so these few errors in Reign of Fire should barely give the audience pause.

Neither should they disturb the folklorists among us. Who stops the Teller of Tales to ask where the magical sword came from, or to protest that animals can't really talk, or to pooh-pooh the idea of a witch's curse? These things are integral to the story, and even the smallest child understands that the outcome of the story itself is the point. Only when the errors interfere with the story do they become a problem. Here they do not.

Reign of Fire brings us several archetypes at once, and the actors in this film for the most part do a beautiful job of portraying characters who are both real and representational. Matthew McConaughey is amazing as Denton Van Zan. His manner speaks of a man who has seen too many horrors, and yet carries on because he has to. He believes in his cause and with the zeal of the true believer he sways followers to him. McConaughey is not afraid to be ugly here. Red-eyed, gravel voiced, sweaty and scarred, Van Zan is not the  usual pretty-boy action hero who fights a dozen villains at once without mussing his hair. McConaughey is utterly right in the Hero role.

Equally good is Christian Bale as Quinn. He is absolutely the gentle, peaceful man who has greatness thrust upon him. He is a benevolent ruler who loves his people and risks his own life to protect them. The figurative joust between Van Zan and Quinn occurs for one reason alone. Both love their folk, but Van Zan is a leader and a commander, while Quinn is merely a shepherd. Quinn cannot ultimately maintain order among his people, even with Creedy's assistance. Quinn's people love him but love is not respect. Van Zan's troops are loyal to him not just because they care about him, but because they respect him. He does not coddle them. Quinn wants to dig in, hide, and hope. Van Zan wants to attack the problem head-on. The battle here is between Hope and Pragmatism, between Paralysis and Action. Reign of Fire deals with the Hero's Journey. Not only the quest, the chase for the Grail, the wresting of treasure from the dragon's jaws: but the journey of transformation that Quinn must make within himself to become the archetypal Hero.

This is very much a masculine film, in that it deals primarily with the male archetypes. Yet there is a strong female character. Though Isabella Scorupko does not do Alexandra justice in the way a more experienced actress might have, still the character as written is a most gratifying change from the two main female action roles. Alex is not a simpering, whining, helpless sexpot in need of rescuing. She is not a liability, a weak link, or just the romantic interest. She is also not a shaven-headed, beefy broad, a la Ripley in Aliens. Alexandra is not required to give up her femininity to do her job as a pilot and a warrior. She remains womanly while displaying courage and skill.

Reign of Fire is a dark film, as well it should be. It takes place in a world of smoke, ash, and dirt. Even daylight scenes are murky and this adds to the somber mood of the film. Refreshingly for a post-Apocalyptic movie, characters dress normally and humanity has not been degraded into Mad Max style punk/S&M hair and clothing. This world looks much like it should look according to the circumstances of the plot. Special effects, mainly much fire and the CGI dragons, are quite good. The dragons are not the cuddly ungainly vision found in, for example, Dragonheart. These dragons are nasty, the classic Wyrm, fast, powerful demons straight out of a Bosch painting. These are the dragons at the heart of Sigurd's story, and St. George's tale, creatures from nightmare who have only lately in human history been replaced by bug-eyed monsters from outer space. These dragons are the original Beasts.

Reign of Fire is not the best fantasy or special effects film of the year. Indeed, following as it does on the heels of Harry Potter, Fellowship of the Ring, and Star Wars Episode II, it may not even register on the radar screen. But Reign of Fire is a solid film worth a good look from any fantasy fan. Before masculinity became anathema, before men were feminized into sensitive navel-gazers who attempt to understand the monster rather than cut out the nonsense and save us from it, there were Heroes. There are Heroes in this film, and it's a deeper movie than I anticipated given the advertising. Don't ignore this film.

[Maria Nutick]