The year is 2020. The place is somewhere in the English countryside... or what's left of it. Castles and dragons and... tanks? Waitaminute... dragons... and tanks. Yes, that's right, so this must be a science-fantasy film, and what a good one it turned out to be.
Reign of Fire, written by Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka, and directed by Rob Bowman, takes us from present day to 20 years into the future, a future in which the land has been ravaged by the children of the last dragon, re-awoken in our time and released to breed. The film opens, after recapping the origin, on one of the last human settlements in existence. Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale) is the leader of the outpost, built into and under the remains of an English castle. Their mantra is to keep two eyes on the sky when awake, one eye on the sky when sleeping, and when the dragons come, to dig hard, dig deep, run fast and never look back. This is the nightly prayer that Quinn leads the children in. Enter Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), leader of a displaced American strike team, and self-proclaimed dragon-slayer. The conflict, and hope that Van Zan brings, lead Quinn and his people out of their safe hidden existence, and into a final conflict that will determine humanity's fate.
This film was a treat. It could have been hokey, it could have been terribly trite and cliche, but it wasn't. This film hooks you from the very beginning. The characters are in a struggle not only for their survival but the survival of the species, against an enemy that was responsible for the destruction of the dinosaurs (or so the movie suggests). Bale and McConaughey are both quite believable in their extremes, pacifist and aggressor, and their supporters are likewise distinctive.
The fire and smoke effects are plentiful, and some of the best I've seen since Backdraft. The whole ambience, the atmosphere of the film, both in the costumes, the make-up, the pastoral scenery shots and the characterizations make for a bleak, unforgiving look at a mere 17 years into our future. The situation is stark, and the representation of it is such that, as a viewer of it, you feel that there is no way they can succeed, that the human race is doomed. Then, amongst the quiet, gentle, valiant Brits come the arrogant, ugly Americans (an attitude that the film makes no bones about purveying) to save the day. They don't, mind you, but they do facilitate a teaming that gives the best hope they have. The detail work is wonderful, giving the film a true feeling of reality that sucks you in and keeps you in another world, a darker, more dangerous world than our own, against an enemy that cannot be reasoned with, will not listen to negotiation and is as relentless as death itself.
The cinematography for this film is wonderful, using the latest advances in digital photography in concert with traditional staging and framing, creating a veritable visual concerto of destruction and despair. This film is dark right to the end, unrelenting in its visual motif of fire, smoke, ash and ruin, all presented in vividly muted tones. Additionally, the score by Ed Shearmur is an able-bodied accomplice to the feel of the film, using thudding percussion to accent the action sequences as well as build the tension that pervades the film.
And then... there are the dragons. In a film such as this, the dragons could have been over-used for spectacle, given the real top-billing in the film, and forcing it into the realms seen by such box-office flops as the poorly-conceived Dungeons and Dragons movie. It could have become another special-effect flop film, but the filmmakers wisely kept the dragons mysterious, using them only when it served the film's intent to add tension and expound plot. And the dragons themselves were beautifully done... CGI without looking overly CGI, and blended perfectly with the live-action perfectly. Even I, a master at finding the "breaking point" between live-action and CGI, could see no gaps in this film.
The only downside I could find was that, unlike some science-fiction & fantasy films of late, the filmmakers expect the audience to take much of the film's "logic" on faith, and this really stretches the willing suspension of disbelief out a bit too thin for us "fantasy reality" people, but to avoid the risk of sounding too cynical, I won't go into any of the specifics. If you don't see the logic gaps, your experience will be that much better for it.
Overall, I give this film a B+. While too intense for younger kids, this film is a great action-adventure story, and it just happens to have some mighty spectacular dragons in it to boot. It's a great way to while away a couple hours, free from mundane real-life.