(movie review written Summer '02)
Disney has taken an unfortunate approach with the marketing of "Reign Of Fire". The trailers, which appear rather cheesy and even give the wrong date the film takes place (many of the trailers say 2084, when everything in the film states 2022), give no indication of how tense, exciting and downright amazing a film that "X-Files" director Rob Bowman has brought together.
The film opens in present-day London with Quinn visiting his mother, a worker in the London underground. Accidentally, the tunnel workers burrow into a "void", an empty cave-like space. One of the other workers asks Quinn to venture inside. When Quinn touches the walls of the interior, they are far more alive than they appear. Soon after, a pool of fire appears in the middle of the cave and a deep, terrifying rumble ensues. One giant, previously sound asleep dragon rips through the cave and out through the opening, into the daylight.
20 years later, there is not one dragon - there are millions of the creatures. The Earth has been burned and only a few survivors hide out in various places around the world. The leaders of the world decided to use nuclear weapons, which may have killed some of the dragons, but for every one that was killed, several rose up to take its place. One of the survivor groups is lead by Quinn, and survive in an abandoned castle in the British countryside. In a hilarious sequence (the film is sharply and surprisingly funny at several points, but still very serious overall), Quinn and a second-in-command act out a scene from "Star Wars" for a group of fascinated youngsters in the camp.
Things are still tense, though; the dragons sweep in every-so-often, seeking food. The appearance of the dragons in the film is nicely spaced out and handled, with Bowman treating them in a "Jaws" fashion, really quieting things down and pulling up the tension before the beasts attack. The first major attack viewed by the audience, which takes place in a field near the compound, was so impressive and fast that my jaw dropped.
About halfway through the picture, the camp is visited by a group of American soldiers, which are lead by Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), who looks and, by all appearances, is borderline insane. Still, he proves that he has, in fact, taken down the creatures in the past and even proves how, in a remarkable skydiving sequence, a little of which has been shown in the ads.
Eventually, the entire group does begin to figure out a way to possibly stop the dragons - but it definitely won't be easy. The dragons themselves are very well-rendered CGI creatures that appear very convincing and very threatening. Although there are some scenes that are legitimately in darkness, the dragons appear mostly in the daytime and are not masked by anything like fog or rain, like "Godzilla".
What makes "Reign Of Fire" so terrific is not just the dragon sequences, which are scary and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, but the screenplay and performances. While nothing that's going to be award-winning, the script really does fill out the characters far better than this kind of film usually does. By early on, I cared about the characters and really wanted them to triumph instead of being dragon food. The characters and setting, all of which have a bit of a "Mad Max" feel, are very rough and intense. Stars Matthew McConaughey (Van Zan) and Christian Bale (the adult Quinn) have really buffed up, especially McConaughey, who looks like a human tank in this picture. They have to act convincingly very tough and a bad screenplay would have made their efforts look rather cartoonish; thankfully, the material is good and their energetic performances are even better as a result.
Technical credits are excellent. As previously mentioned, the CGI dragons are fantastic - who knows what "dragons" would really do, but these moved through the air with impressive swiftness, looked sleek and intimidiating and were certainly an advancement over the dragon in Rob Cohen's 1995 "Dragonheart" (thankfully the dragons here don't talk, only roar). Cinematographer Adrian Biddle (the "Mummy" features) also gives the movie a bleak, interesting appearance, with solid compositions. The film also boasts a very good score from Ed Shearmur and excellent editing from Thom Noble ("Vertical Limit").
Bowman, cast and crew have really created one of the best "Summer action" movies that I've seen in a long while. "Reign Of Fire" is thrilling, fun and well-acted. One of the most entertaining films I've seen this Summer.
VIDEO: Buena Vista Home Video presents "Reign Of Fire" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation is excellent, but suffers from one noticable fault, which I'll discuss later. First, sharpness and detail were terrific throughout the presentation: the picture remained crisp and well-defined, even in the dark interior scenes or some of the misty, overcast outdoor sequences.
As for flaws, the only noticable problem that I ran into with the picture quality was edge enhancement. While the edge enhancement present never became terribly annoying or distracting, several scenes showed an easily noticable amount. Otherwise, the print used looked superb aside from a few minor specks, while pixelation or other issues didn't come up.
The film's desaturated color palette was well-reproduced, with no concerns. Aside from the edge enhancement, a very nice transfer.
SOUND: Buena Vista Home Video presents "Reign Of Fire" in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1. The mere mention of "Reign of Fire" and "DTS" had me excited as a kid about to open presents on Christmas morning and the track certainly didn't disapoint. The film's sound design work is absolutely first-rate and those who enjoy frequent and agressive surround use will certainly be pleased - I wouldn't be surprised if many consider this demo material to show off their sound system.
The film's sound design crew have realized that the sound of this kind of film can be effective when presenting both tense quiet and total chaos. The dragon scenes are truly astounding, as the beasts fill the room and swoop into and through the listening space like a freight train. The film's skydiving sequence, which starts off with a terrific chase, really has the front speakers working together to create a convincing moment; not only do the sound effects impress - especially the heavy flapping of the dragon wings, but there's a depth to the sound and a seamless quality that really puts the viewer into the scene. While the film's visual effects are terrific, the sound effects and sound design really take the dragons to another level.
Still, this isn't one of those action film's that's all loud, all the time. There are some moments of crisp, minor ambience in the surrounds as well as some additional sound effects that find their way into the rear speakers. A few of the dragon attacks are made even more effective by the near-silence of the soundtrack before they strike. Adding to the experience is Ed Shearmur's intense score, which is often reinforced by the surrounds.
Audio quality is marvelous, too. When the dragons flew over and through the listening space, the speakers really conveyed the force. When the dragons landed or were brought down, the bass is deep and powerful. Dialogue was generally crisp and clear, while the score sounded warm and dynamic. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks were quite enjoyable, but I found the DTS to provide a noticably better experience. The soundtrack seemed more dynamic and rich, while all the speakers seemed to work together to create a more seamless and less speaker-specific feel.
As with the picture quality, one fault here also makes an otherwise great audio presentation suffer: at about an hour and eleven minutes into the picture, there is a line: "One pass - he flew over just once." This being my fourth or fifth viewing of the film, the absence of that line was instantly noticable. While the scene manages to work without it (I'd guess that most watching the film for the first time will probably not notice), I thought it was a pretty effective line. Both the DTS and Dolby Digital tracks do not have it, which makes me wonder if it was taken out at some point after the theatrical release or simply an error.
EXTRAS: The DVD includes three featurettes: "Conversations with Rob Bowman", "Breathing Life Into Terror" and "If You Can't Take The Heat...". "Breathing Life Into Terror" stands out as not only the shortest, but the weakest piece, as part of its running time is taken up by the trailer, while the remainder is made up of just general interviews. "Conversations" allows Bowman to discuss his influences and concepts for the film, while "If You Can't Take..." looks into the safety measures on-set when the real effects were put into play. Rounding out the disc are the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for "Bad Company" and "Count of Monte Cristo". Also included are promos for the "Reign of Fire" video game (the movie's certainly better the game) and the game "Kingdom Hearts".
Final Thoughts: "Reign Of Fire" was not recieved well by critics and, it seems, a fair amount of audiences last Summer. Still, I enjoyed the film - the atmosphere and gritty feel is well-realized, while the performances are better than usual for this genre. I also found the film to stand up fairly well to repeat viewings. Buena Vista's DVD is a pretty enjoyable effort; while both audio and video each have a concern, other aspects of each are exceptional - especially the sound. Although it didn't fare too well theatrically, I hope action fans will at least give this one a chance as a rental. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2