There were remarkably few live-action dragon movies before Reign of Fire. Maybe the difficulty of pulling off dragon effects is to blame for that––1981's Dragonslayer has a definite campy charm, and it looks great for its time, but that's not saying much. I'm a sucker for 1996's Dragonheart, but its cartoony dragon and optimistic tale of bravery keep it rooted pretty firmly in kids' film territory.
The Dungeons and Dragons movie, released two years earlier––you know, the one you probably didn't see and had until now forgotten about entirely––certainly didn't offer much hope for dragons as any kind of viable subject matter.
Obviously, there are now a few successful dragon-related projects out there. The immensely popular Game of Thrones took its time, priming us for a full season before actually introducing its three now-ubiquitous dragons. And Peter Jackson didn't tackle The Hobbit's Smaug until winning over international audiences with the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But before all of that, in 2002, Reign of Fire came along, starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale and a pre-McConassaince Matthew McConaughey. In it, humanity is almost extinct after an ancient race of dragons is unearthed and lays waste to England and soon the entire world. A small group of survivors, on its last legs when its meagre crops are torched, rises up against the dragons when a major weakness is discovered––dragons are overwhelmingly female. Kill the lone male fertilizing eggs and the dragons will fall.
VICE spoke to Reign of Fire director Rob Bowman, who never had any illusions about his uphill battle. "I walked into that movie thinking, you're going to make a dragon movie; you're going to get your ass kicked," he said. And he did. The movie definitely had its champions, including critic Richard Roeper, who applauded its entertaining camp qualities. But it received overall negative reviews––and inspired a painful amount of fire puns that are as scorchingly bad as they are obvious.
Rewatching Reign of Fire a full 15 years after its release, I was blown away by how great these dragons still look, not least because Bowman and his team were pretty much starting from scratch. With that kind of blank slate, it would have been easy to go all out, but Bowman knew he was already on thin ice. "There had to be some relatability to the various predators that exist. The skin had to be the same skin as you would find on a king cobra, with a little texturing, let's say from an alligator," he said.
In the end, the dragons drew on everything from komodo dragons to elephants and lions, with hints of sharks and the Lamborghini Countach to keep things sleek and sexy.
That kind of reality-infused fantasy has trickled down into other films. For one, Bowman insisted on ditching traditional fire breathing (you don't want the audience wondering whether the dragon's mouth is being burnt up with every flame) and again looked to the animal kingdom for inspiration. The king cobra, once again, was a great starting point. It doesn't spray fire, but it can spit its venom. Even more useful was the bombardier beetle, which shoots two chemicals from its abdomen that, once mixed, create a hot, burning spray. Bowman used these real-world examples to inspire his own dragons. They don't breathe fire exactly, but rather spit chemicals from two different sacks in their mouths that, when combined, ignite. "That's anatomy. That's already been designed, so we're going to draw from there," he said.
It's hard to overstate the influence of that one detail. Bowman told me that he's often heard from members of his old team, letting him know they've spotted another rip-off of his dragons, not that he minds. "It's OK," he said, "it's a compliment." I first consciously noticed that particular fire-breathing detail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but having come out three years after Reign, the concept was clearly borrowed. The Harry Potter Wiki entry on Hungarian Horntails (the dragon in question) actually credits the innovation to Reign of Fire, noting that the chemical liquid method was later borrowed by Game of Thrones and Gods of Egypt too.
Beyond paving the way for us to take dragons seriously, Reign of Fire has aged quite well. Its star power is impressively forward-thinking, giving us the likes of then lesser-known Bale and McConaughey, and even a fresh-faced Gerard Butler. McConaughey was admittedly already a star, though he was still years away from "time is a flat circle" and Bale, growing out of his child-actor past, had yet to slim down for The Machinist or bulk up for Batman Begins. It was a lucky bit of timing. "How many years ago could you say you can afford to put Christian, Gerry, and Matthew in the same movie?" Bowman asked.
The film also took a sober look at a world dominated by dragons, opting for a dystopian, survivalist tone. It's much more Mad Max than Middle Earth. Reign of Fire went into production before the release of the first Lord of the Rings film, so the contrast is largely coincidental, but it certainly helps Reign avoid feeling like a cash-grabby knock-off. And it's a fresh take that helps you sink into the narrative as a viewer. "I felt that if I could get the audience to just accept one thing, which is the dragons, then I would provide an ultra-realism around it," said Bowman.
Wisely, Bowman used dragons as a tool to tell a human story. "What I wanted to do was put regular people up against an overwhelmingly superior opponent," he said. "It's nothing more than a metaphor for something really difficult to deal with."
Bowman described living through the 1971 San Fernando earthquake and seeing his parents handle the situation calmly, keeping their kids together and safe. Then seeing the panic outside his home on the news. "When you have the earth shaking, when mother nature reaches up with her ugly, powerful hand and does something like that, people get scared beyond their sensibilities, and they're very primal in that moment," Bowman said. "People are distilled and reduced to who they are essentially when you throw them in crisis. Putting people in crisis and seeing how they make decisions, I'm fascinated with it."
That human element is what shines through most clearly, with McConaughey and Bale's characters standing in for the fight and flight responses respectively. Bale's Quinn takes on a patriarchal role, leading a group of survivors who keep to themselves outside of the dragon-controlled urban centres of England, while McConaughey's brash (and ripped) American Van Zan takes a military approach, bringing the fight to the dragons. It makes for a compelling, low-key conflict. "How do you find conflict between Quinn and Van Zan when they both ultimately want the same thing?" The solution is to allow McConaughey to do what he does best––be just a little unhinged. Van Zan is relatable to a point, but he also has a Colonel Kurtz-infused intensity and sense of focus.
I can't help but think Bowman's approach would be better received today. With the latest Planet of the Apes flick getting almost unanimous praise, and Game of Thrones continuing to captivate the world, gritty realist takes on fanciful sci-fi and fantasy tropes seems to be in right now.
Reign of Fire may not be a masterpiece, but it's a great bit of entertainment. If you can put up with the silly, outrageous, or just plain offensive parts of Game of Thrones, you can probably spare 100 minutes for this surprisingly influential sci-fi take on mythical fire breathers.
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