Reign of Fire is quite possibly the saddest movie one could make about fire-breathing dragons. Here is a movie where smiling is considered a sin, and where every line must be delivered with the utmost urgency and seriousness, lest the dragons catch wind of happiness and decide to ruin someone’s day by attacking. If perhaps a joke was told or camp was used in order to lighten the mood, maybe Reign of Fire would be enjoyable. But, no, there’s no joy to be had in this film, which weakens the final product.
At some point a while back, a construction worker opened up a hole in which a dragon had been sleeping for centuries. It, in turn, decided to turn Earth into an apocalyptic place. Sure, it was aided when the humans decided to start dropping nuclear bombs like it was going out of style, but essentially, a lot of dragons woke up and started eating everyone. Resistance attempts were unsuccessful, and there are now only a handful of survivors, who stay as hidden as possible so as to let the dragons once again go into hibernation. If there’s no food, they go to sleep, it would seem.
The leader of one of these groups is Quinn (Christian Bale), who was only 12 years of age at the time of the awakening. He was one of the first people to see the dragons, actually, although he managed to survive its attack, somehow. He leads these survivors with his best friend, Creedy (Gerard Butler), and they do their best to stay alive. Stay hidden, only venture out for food, that sort of thing. After we see them fight off one dragon, which shows us how dangerous the beasts of lore are, the plot really kicks into high gear.
A group of Americans appears, which is odd considering we’re in Europe and nobody can fly because dragons occupy the skies. They’re led by a man named Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), who claims that he’s killed dragons before. Eventually, it’s decided that if they kill one dragon, the leader, the dragons won’t be able to reproduce. So that’s the plan, and by this point we’re already an hour into the movie and nobody has been won over by the film.
I didn’t know it was possible to make a film about dragons fighting against the last few remaining humans this dreary and boring, but that’s what director Rob Bowman has done here. There are plenty of action scenes where humans fight dragons, but there’s never a sense of danger, and there isn’t much of a fight put up. I think there are only two battles in which a dragon is killed, and both of them end anticlimactically. They involve humans running around, shooting at the dragon and either missing or doing little damage, and then one blow ends it.
The dragons did feel vicious and terrifying — one of the early scenes involves a dragon completely decimating a group of people before reinforcements are brought in — but not much death befalls the people, and the important characters never feel like they’re in any danger. It’s like watching a villain with the aim of a drunk archer. Sure, once in a while the training will pay off and the arrow will go where he wants, but most of the time it’ll be laughably off the mark.
They’re rendered with the very best special effects, though, so they’re a wonder to look at in the few scenes we get to see them. The idea is that the less you see of them, the scarier they’ll be, so we don’t actually get to see a lot of the dragons. And even in the scenes where dragons appear to wreck things, they fly by too quickly to get a good glimpse of them. Or it’ll be too dark. There are only a couple of times we really get to appreciate how much work was put into them.
Most of the problems I had with Reign of Fire came from the tone. We’re not going to get a straight-up action movie, so there are a lot of moments when we have to listen to people talking and planning. If there had been a hint of them realizing just how insane the situation they’re in, or if they stopped and laughed for a minute, maybe I would have enjoyed Reign of Fire. But it’s so dark, so damp, so depressing, that I don’t know how you can watch it and feel good. Dragons rising out of the ground and destroying Earth is sad, sure, but it’s also fantastical and amazing. The second part is never explored.
Christian Bale is a good actor, but he’s given nothing here to sink his teeth into. I suppose it says something about everyone involved that, for the most part, they’re acting against a villain that isn’t really there and keeping a super-serious straight face while doing it, but there is no depth to anyone’s performance. McConaughey is laughable when attempting to be a tough guy, especially when he tries to boss Bale’s character around.
Reign of Fire is a dark, depressing movie about fire-breathing dragons. The tone is completely wrong for this type of film, and it’s for this reason that it doesn’t ultimately work. Having lackluster action scenes and not giving us many good looks at the dragons is part of the reason, but I think the whole bleak outlook on the story is the main reason. If you’re hoping for a fun movie involving dragons, stay away from this one. If you’re looking for one to put you to sleep in a bad mood, maybe give it a look.