Reign of Fire is an action film released in July of 2002 by Touchstone Pictures and directed by Rob Bowman (whose previous credits are mostly TV shows, most noteably many episodes of "The X-Files" and the series' film). The story takes place in the near future (2020C.E.) where dragons, which had been in hibernation in large underground caverns for millions of years, have awoken and decimated the planet, turning entire cities to ash and feasting on the remains. The film focuses on Quinn (Christian Bale), leader of a small community somewhere in England just trying to survive, and Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), an American national guardsman leading what remains of his troops to find a way to stop the dragons once and for all. Quinn and Van Zan's conflicting philosophies add some thought to this mostly action-filled movie.

Reign of Fire fits into the category of summer blockbuster action flick, though it is quite entertaining and doesn't suffer from many of the drawbacks most action films do. The acting in Reign of Fire is good, the audience is spared any lame subplots designed to widen the target audience (no goofy sidekicks, unrealistic romances, etc.), and the film isn't dependent on special effects. Despite this, the special effects are very good and not overused. The audience is never given footage of the dragons flying or attacking just to show off the studio's computer graphics department. Each dragon attack serves a purpose in the story.

The suspenseful and grim, post-apocalyptic mood of the film is excellently portrayed. The skies are often misty and overcast, leaving the characters (and audience) to wonder what may be about to come flying out of the clouds. The countryside surrounding Quinn's community of survivors is almost completely barren and scorched. A scene in which Quinn and Van Zan end up fighting each other illustrates this best as their movement pushes around and kicks up the thick ash where once dirt and plantlife may have been found. At times the film seems to draw inspiration from medieval tales of dragons, with Quinn's community living in a castle, Van Zan sometimes sporting an axe rather than a gun, Quinn and Van Zan using crossbows at one point, and, of course, the dragons themselves. Nevertheless, Bowman manages to mix this with a modern and post-apocalyptic feel with Van Zan's tanks, the 3D mapping technology and skydiving the soldiers use in slaying dragons, and Quinn's rifle's scope.

The look of the dragons is another plus. The beasts come across as dangerous and agile without the human-like personalities or facial expressions they might have had in another movie. There's nothing magic about them, as Van Zan says at one point. The creatures flight is made possible with massive wingspans. The fire they "breathe" is created by two glands in their mouths which mix chemicals that react to each other explosively when the dragons push air out through their mouths. Articles written about the film before its release point out that director Rob Bowman wanted the artists and special effects people to create dragons that would appear realistic. The artists responded by using the look of other, real reptiles found on Earth and basic skeletal structures found in birds.

Reign of Fire isn't without its drawbacks. After the audience is shown the awakening of the first dragon, the movie flashes foward to 2020 with a well-put together but not too developed montage of newspaper articles and pictures of ruined cities while Quinn rushes through a narrative of the history of the world after the dragons begin their reign of fire. The end of the film seems to come too quickly as well, though perhaps this is merely because the audience is spared dull filler material many action movies include. Despite this, the film is enjoyable overall. Not something to see if you're looking for gripping drama or deep character development but definitely one of the better action flicks out there.

Reign of Fire
Directed by: Rob Bowman.
Written by: Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka, and Matt Greenberg.
Starring: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco, and Gerard Butler.
Released by: Touchstone Pictures in 2002.
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for "intense action violence."

Reign Of Fire
Discussing a Big, Summer, B-Movie as allegory

Dir: Rob Bowman

“On 11 September 2001, the American people saw what terrorists could do by turning four airplanes into weapons... We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons… Saddam Hussein can now be expected to begin another round of empty concessions, transparently false denials… No more gamesVoteRonPaul George Bush, 7/2/2003(1)

Release: Touchstone Pictures, Summer, 2002
Script: Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg
Cast: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler


It is the year 2020, twenty years since the dragons came. From caverns beneath the earth they emerged from hibernation and swarmed across the planet, spreading fire and ash. Battened down in Northumberland, England, a small community guided by a man named Quinn (Christian Bale) is trying to eke out an existence in a medieval castle, waiting until the dragons starve. Following a catastrophic night, when the community lost half their food supply and several children to a dragon, they find themselves at a crossroads - American troops arrive at the gate asking for aid.

Led by Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), they have a plan to kill the dragons, and they have brought the first helicopter anyone has seen since the fall. But their plan involves going into the heart of the dragons territory. Man must return to London and fight a type of dragon no one has ever seen - a male.

Politics in Reign of Fire:

Science Fiction on film has long been a vehicle for political allegory and subversion. From Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (a Cold War movie about the unseen threat) to It’s a Good Life (an intensely political episode of The Twilight Zone about Joe McCarthy’s threat to free speech) the lower budgets and editorial freedom of a creature-feature allowed film makers to get away with political statements that would be considered unacceptable when delivered upfront.

In the long, slow, run up to the second Iraq War, Reign of Fire clearly slipped past the right wing media’s eye, and a summer blockbuster was released (in the same month as the chest beating The Sum of All Fears) with an implicit condemnation of American foreign policy. With $115m(2) to play with, this was intended as an event movie, although it is regularly referred to as a B-movie with an inexplicably large budget. It is a real pity that its subtexts went unnoticed, with another two-year wait before Fahrenheit 911 explicitly criticized the war. The primary themes in the piece are defending ones community, the dangers of militarist thinking, American and British political interaction, and how to deal with a threat you cannot negotiate with and don't fully understand. Here I will take you through the key points in the narrative:

Firstly there are the Dragons. Like any creature-feature, the monsters are basically just uncontrollable threat. This allows the film maker to address the Communists/Islamic terrorists in the abstract but deal with the Americans as people. The Dragons are very animal, fire breathing snakes with wings, with a biological justification for their powers. Played as present across the world, it should be noted that they emerge from a major metropolitan area (London). As allegory, they are not drawn as malicious, or vicious, they simply are. This could be considered a naïve viewpoint.

The crux of the story is the relationship between Quinn’s community and the Americans Troops led by Van Zann. Quinn is the archetypal British hero: a hard, rigid, stoical man intent on surviving and living up to his responsibilities in the face of defeat and conflict. This community is shown idealistically trying to raise children and survive, their main pleasures coming from sarcasm and humour in the face of trouble. The early portion of the story revolves around their attempts to weather the storm.

Van Zann, who arrives on the back of a US tank, is portrayed as the stereotypical American militarist. Self satisfied with his status as leader, he demonstrates his skills by killing a Dragon soon after arriving; and then, with access to the British facilities, he gradually increases his demands, eventually drafting a significant proportion of the communities men under threat of violence. By the standards of Hollywood shlock, It's quite a moving set of scenes, especially when Van Zan puts his foot down against the Brits independence. The "with us or against us" American rhetoric spouted by Van Zan has a certain resonance, particularly in the summer of Hanz Blix's reports on Iraqi weapons.

Among the most politically important scenes in the film, Van Zann and Quinn engage in a heated debate about the best strategy for dealing with the Dragons. Van Zann, elevated by his military status and possession of high-tech equipment, has a grand and convoluted plan for killing off the threat. Quinn, who can see the value of this plan, has greater experience on the ground and is much more prepared to bring up the drawbacks, declaring that this will massively increase the chances of an attack on his community. In watching this movie again, in the light of the London Bombings, I have to admit that this scene hits quite hard. Whether they were simply using the increased threat as a narrative device, when viewed politically it has a threatening presence.

From here the film becomes pretty standard Hollywood fare, we see some gorgeous fights with dragons, and scenes of magnificent fire, with Van Zann’s plan bringing on disaster, and he and Quinn uniting to destroy the dragon threat.

The films backbone is a vicious condemnation of the American Government’s attitude to foreign policy problems. Militarism, and the belief that improved military solutions can solve the fundamental problems of warfare, is the target here. Released just as Donald Rumsfeld was making speeches about “Shock and Awe” tactics, this perspective is a little startling from a major Hollywood company such as Touchstone Pictures. Added to this is the interpretation of the British, who are the heroes throughout. Quinn is shown as having absolutely no influence on the direction of the Americans, a condemnation of the status of junior partners in American led wars.

The questions immediately occurs, why did this movie get made? Was it initially intended to be this politically charged? An interview with the scriptwriters(3) suggests that the script was first developed in the mid 90’s. This isn’t as outlandish as may initially appear, since Britain had long been the junior partner in American wars, and we had been living with the Islamist threat since the first World Trade Center bombings. The direct angle of alluding to Islamic terrorisim, if it is there, is probably the work of the director Rob Bowman. His primary experience before this movie was in making the movie for, and many episodes of, The X-Files, arguably the most anti-government American television series of the ‘90s. Whether it’s anti-Iraq message was intentional or, whether it was intended as a general condemnation of American Militarism, Reign of Fire stands up well against Three Kings and Wag The Dog, the key movies on post Cold War American adventurism. This movie could not have come at a more suitable time.

On a personal level, I absolutely adore post-apocalyptic stories, with I am Legend (to which this bears considerable similarity) being one of my all time favorite SF tales, and you really can’t go wrong with decent CGI Dragons. This may at first appear ridiculous, but the post-apocalyptic zombie movie has become a staple, so what’s the difference with dragons? While this movie isn’t as fluid and action packed as Cameron’s Aliens (which also has a strong political subtext), it stand up as a cracking piece of summer popcorn that somehow managed to get away with viciously attacking the US government. The great subversive tradition in SF is clearly not dead; however many blatant propaganda movies (Independence Day, A New Hope) may get made, SF remains among the best vehicles for politically charged movie making. Just as George W. Bush was hammering the drum for what would become a foreign policy disaster, a cinematic slap in the face slipped through the cracks with a budget of $115 million.


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