There aren’t too many mythical creatures more recognizable or as awesome as the dragon. There are also two major interpretations of the dragon. Chinese dragons are generally considered symbols of good fortune, strength and wisdom. They don’t harm humans, they are sometimes believed to live in heaven with the gods, and some Chinese even call themselves “descendants of the dragon.” One major study within Kung-Fu is the dragon form, also known as Shaolin Boxing. European dragons on the other hand are mean, violent creatures that are greedy, live in isolation, and tend to harm humans and eat cattle. Dragon slayers are a major part of European legend, including the English epic Beowulf. Generally, both types of dragons are portrayed as intelligent.
As awesome as these creatures are, there are unfortunately very few good dragon movies. There are good movies with dragons in them, some of which I’ve looked at before (Shrek, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan), but the dragon really isn’t the main focus of the movie. Pete’s Dragon from the 70’s is mediocre at best, even though it tries to be good, and the dragon in that movie doesn’t feel like either major dragon myth. For this blog series, I consulted a number of lists online for the best dragon movies ever made. Three movies tend to appear on every list: the first two How To Train Your Dragon movies, and this one.
Reign of Fire is a post-apocalyptic movie, where dragons are scorching the Earth. It’s interesting that this is the first movie I’m looking at in the year 2020, considering the movie takes place in 2020. Reign of Fire was released in 2002 by Touchstone Pictures, a currently dormant film distribution label of Disney. Looking a bit deeper into Touchstone, they apparently distributed 13 DreamWorks movies, the last one being 2016’s The Light Between Oceans. Seriously, the Disney Corporation is a monster.
Anyway, Reign of Fire is directed by Rob Bowman. Bowman is generally known more for TV, having contributed to Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files (he received four consecutive Emmy nominations for that series as a producer), The A-Team, and Castle. He’s directed 4 movies in his career: Reign of Fire, The X-Files, Airborne, and Elektra. X-Files is his best reviewed movie by far, with Reign of Fire earning mixed reviews, and Airborne and Elektra both getting critically panned.
It stars Christian Bale as Quinn, the leader of a community of survivors at Bamburgh Castle. Matthew McConaughey plays Denton, the leader of the Kentucky Irregulars, a group of dragon slayers. You’ve also got one of Gerald Butler’s early big roles as Creedy, Quinn’s second in command, and Izabella Scorupco as Alex (she played Natalya in Goldeneye).
The idea of a post-apocalyptic movie with dragons sounds awesome. With the humans hiding in castles, trying to avoid the hundreds of dragons flying over the skies, you’ve got an interesting mix of medieval buildings, modern weapons and struggling to survive. Despite this movie’s 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only earning $82 million on a $60 million budget (actually making it a commercial failure), Reign of Fire does have its fans.
First of all, let’s talk about what works with this movie. The production quality as a whole is very good. The sets feature a good mix of old ruins and fortifications built in hopes to keep the dragons out. For a movie released in 2002, the dragons usually look fairly realistic. Sometimes the fire looks fake, and there are a couple shots where the dragons look a bit goofy, and some of the blue screen shots are quite obvious, but form the most part this is a great looking movie. This movie did after all win the Festival de Cine de Sitges Best Visual Effects award. That’s a major film festival usually held in Barcelona, Spain, and tends to focus on fantasy and horror films. McConaughey is awesome as Denton, showing a touch of psychopathy with his dragon killing obsession. Of course he’s almost always at least fun to watch. Most of the other major actors are at least good as well.
That’s about where the good stuff ends. The action is passable, but it feels limited by this movie’s budget and the quality of CGI at the time, and it often feels rushed. There are some weird cuts in a couple action scenes that make them hard to follow. The world building is interesting, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere.
And now for the bad. There is very little story to this movie, and what is there doesn’t make sense the more you think about it. All of the biology theories thrown around about the dragons leave open a number of plot holes. There’s the idea that most of the dragons everyone sees are female, and there’s only one male mating with all of them. Question – if each female lays hundreds of eggs, why aren’t there any other males flying around? And how can they be sure there’s only one male dragon? The idea that there might be more than one male is never even considered, yet after they kill the only male, they don’t experience anymore dragon attacks for three months. Why would the females stop attacking just because their man is dead? They still need food after all.
My thoughts are, perhaps there’s only one male because he kills all the male babies. Well, now that the big man is dead, who’s there to stop more male babies from growing up? Wouldn’t that just make the situation worse, or at best, slow down the inevitable death of the human race? Even if the young males fight amongst themselves, there’d have to be at least one survivor, right? The more you think about this movie’s storytelling, the more holes open up.
Beyond that is, this movie just isn’t all that fun. The action is often slow or over too quickly. There’s so little character development that you don’t really care when someone dies. It’s a dark and dreary movie that fails to make you care about anyone or anything, because of how bare bones the writing is. All of the conflicts amount to “I don’t trust him” or “You attack the male dragon, you’ll bring him back to us. We need to survive.” All of the human interactions are cliché. When you’ve got a concept as awesome as this, you need to go one way or the other. Either craft a serious story and develop the characters and make you care about them, or go crazy and make the movie as entertaining as possible. Reign of Fire doesn’t do either of those.
I won’t go so far as to say this movie is bad, but unless you love dragon movies, it is a waste of time. I’ve seen parts of it years ago at a friend’s house, and I wasn’t impressed enough to bother watching it until now. I’m in the middle of writing a book called “dragonblood”, so I’m looking at dragon movies this month. This movie still felt like a waste of time – time I could have spent writing that book instead.
The next two movies I’ll look at are the first two How To Train Your Dragon movies. I’ll look at the third at some point in the future, but the fourth movie I’ll look at will either be Dragonheart, or the Pete’s Dragon remake that came out in 2016. I haven’t yet decided which one. Next month, I’ll be looking at all of the Peter Jackson movies based on the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.