20 December 2012

APOCALYPSE WEEK: DEATH BY MONSTERS

The battled-hardened fan of genre films learns quickly how to sift the good bits and pieces out of otherwise mediocre project; it is unlikely that one would else become a genre fan. And here's an absolutely perfect example, Reign of Fire from 2002: there are some very fine individual elements, but is mostly bog-standard post-apocalypse survival adventure, but the concept underlying the story is so ridiculously strong that the whole thing, typical as it undeniably is, feels somehow so much better than that. The underlying concept, in this case, being that the great apocalypse of 2008 was caused by honest-to-God fire-breathing dragons.

There are, I suppose, those who find this idea stupid rather than amazing, and I deeply pity them the fact that they never had a childhood.

Now, the movie surrounding that idea is not exactly a splashy action extravaganza in which hordes of dragons are fought by hordes of tanks and airplanes and mecha, or whatever. The key thing is that this is a post-apocalypse movie; the frenzied dragon-based destruction of the whole world is actually communicated entirely offscreen, through the use of a montage of newspaper clippings (which smuggle in exposition rather cleanly and subtly, for a film of this sort: the hugely important fact that dragons can live off the ash of the organic material they burn is expressed only as a subhead, briefly seen. Risky move, but I like it) and a grim narrator, one Quinn Abercromby, as it turns out, played by Christian Bale, back when everybody mostly knew who he was, but nobody especially cared - and somehow, after all those grumbling Batman pictures and other American productions, it came as a rel shock to hear him talking like a person born in Wales. By the time he's embodied by Bale, we've already met Quinn: as a child in 2008, visiting his mother (Alice Krige) at the construction site where she worked as crew chief, as part of an expansion of the London Underground. Here, the digging team finds something odd: a huge empty chamber. And when little Quinn pokes in, as an inquisitive child will do, he finds something big, scaly, and moving, and by the time it starts spitting fire he's just barely to escape, the sole survivor of an inferno. That one dragon having been awakened from a primordial sleep, it quickly finds a way to breed and in about 20 years, the surface of the Earth consists of nothing but pockets of humanity in hiding, and ash, and literally hundreds of dragons.

Quinn, in this state of affairs, is the leader of a group that has holed itself up in an ancient Scottish castle, one of the few structures in the country that's totally flame-resistant, and thus we come to the other conceptual thing that really impressed me with Reign of Fire: it is a commonplace idea in fantasy-type movies from the '80s (and other times, and other media; but '80s movies is where we'll stay for now) that the apparently ancient barbarian times on display are actually the far-flung future, after a great cataclysm destroyed technology. What's nifty about this movie is that it depicts this process in something like real time: it manages to set a movie in or around 2030, with men fighting dragons using bows and other primitive weapons (and also machine guns), and it finds a way to make this neo-medieval setting perfectly consistent with characters who would have been alive at the time of the film's production.

So far, we've got an enjoyable concept in an enjoyable setting - again, there are surely people whose coal-black hearts make no space for "men holed up in a castle fight dragons with machine guns", but they are to be sorely pitied, not condemned - and that's kind of it as far as the script goes. After we've been introduced to the situation, and a few characters besides Quinn who failed to make even the slightest impression (Gerard Butler is one of the most important, and if hadn't been played by Gerard Butler, I can guarantee that I wouldn't have remembered who he was in between scenes), what screenwriters call the "inciting incident" happens, and Quinn's happy little band of desperate, starving survivalists is invaded by a helicopter-riding gang of Americans (the line "the only thing worse than dragons - Americans" is indeed trotted out, slowly enough that you can feel it creeping up on you like the embodiment of Death), calling themselves the Kentucky Irregulars, led by wild man Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey, unrecognisable beneath the sweat, grime, and crazy hermit beard). Where Quinn is playing a "wait and see game" with the dragons, realising that their numbers are decreasing as they're starving, Van Zan is considerably more active in his approach: he and the Irregulars have perfected a dangerous but effective means of killing the dragons by paratrooping, and he's developed a most ambitious plan: he has figured out that the dragons breed like fish, in that the female lays an egg that is later fertilised by a male, and that there is only one male dragon in the whole world. Quinn, of course, has already met that male, and knows exactly where to find it.

The great bulk of Reign of Fire plays out as a struggle between Quinn and Van Zan's different plans to defeat the dragon menace, and the one truly impressive thing about the screenwriting here is that there's not a single point where the film decides that one of them is right. They are, both of them, offering half-formed, acts of desperation in response to a seemingly unwinnable danger, both as reasonable as possible given what each man individually knows about the dragons. It's a common post-apocalypse plot thread that is here treated with a great deal more intelligence and sophistication that nearly ever happens (in most films, Van Zan would be a transparent loony), and Bale and McConaughey do fine work in depicting their characters' respective strengths, and also their intransigence.

On the other hand, there is nothing going on in the script besides this battle of wills; not a single character emerges as a fleshed-out personality, not even Van Zan's second-in-command Alex (Izabella Scorupco), who ought to be able to cheat her way in by virtue of being the film's only significant female character. But for all the good that does, it's no different than having a colorful scar: a way of distinguishing her from the rest of the cast, but not actually something that gives her a meaningful role.

The film was directed by Rob Bowman, one of the most important directors on The X-Files back when that show was pretty much the only game in town as far as TV that looks like movies; and damn me, but the film looks like a particularly glossy episode. Medium shots are everywhere, and things are lit in a sort of industrial-gothic way that doesn't make much sense at all in the context of the story or action, but is at least pretty to the eye. It's apparent that he's no more interested in what's happening than the script, for he pushes through dialogue scenes as quickly as possible in order to get to the good stuff: the slow-boil tension of the scenes where people aren't certain where the dragons are, or the manic fear when they do know that the dragons are right about to eat them.

That, really, is what gives the film a passing grade, coupled with the unusually smart central human conflict: the dragons are outstanding. They don't crop up very much - I'd certainly believe they're in just about 15 minutes of a 100-minute feature - but when they do, it counts. Their design is a bit on the predictable side (the filmmakers have acknowledged that they borrowed heavily from seminal dragon film Dragonslayer, which - shame of shames! - I have never seen), but the execution could hardly be improved; ten years on, the CGI used to create the creatures looks better than most movies that are just a few months old, and outside of the best parts of The Two Towers, there's not a single 2002 movie that comes even close to standing up to these effects. They move like animals, flexing in all the right places; they are textured and lit perfectly; they have weight and mass - they seem to displace the air around them in a way that most CGI just plain doesn't. It's hard to explain what went right, unless it's that the relative rarity of the CGI in this movie permitted the visual effects artists to focus with extra care on the few scenes that they did have; at any rate, you could put it in theaters tomorrow and it would look as good or better as anything in the same multiplex. And while great visual effects are a shallow reason to recommend a movie, and one that I typically do try to eschew... dragons, man. That's all we're really here to see, and by God, they do not disappoint in the slightest.

11 comments:

Dean Hamlin said...

Wow. Here I was, looking up random criticism on the internet to pass the infinite time I have now that finals are done, when I think: "Hey, I wonder what that guy Tim thought of Shawshank Redemption". But instead I read his review to a movie that sounded awesome when I was twelve but never saw. And now I have to watch it. And I somehow thought my experience was so profound that I should post a long message about it on this blog.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is: thank you for writing. Your blog is part of what keeps my mind from attempting to fly off in five different directions at once sometimes.

Brian Malbon said...

Holy crap, Tim, you're the very first person I've ever encountered who had anything at all nice to say about this movie - a movie that I never saw; thanks to more than a few "it sucks, don't even bother" reviews, and now I kind of wish I had. Maybe I can still find it in the bargain bin at walmart.

Andy said...

Ahh man I always did like this film, and it pleases my greatly to finally read a positive review of it.

Coal-black hearts, indeed.

Tim said...

Dean- Glad I can be of service! There's no Shawshank review up on this blog, mostly because it's a film where I don't feel like I have anything particularly useful to say about it that hasn't been said already a hundred times, and unlike e.g. Halloween, I don't have enough of a personal stake in it to write a review anyway. But who knows what the future will bring.

Brian, Andy- I think the film's reception is not helped out by how much it caters to a specific niche: people who like post-apocalyptic movies and also dragons. And I very much doubt that any of the former aren't also the latter, but it's anyway a combination with a very self-selecting audience. And certainly, the ad campaign in '02 promised a much more action-packed "man vs. dragon" story than the film delivered.

RickR said...

Tim wrote- "And certainly, the ad campaign in '02 promised a much more action-packed "man vs. dragon" story than the film delivered."

This pretty much pinpoints why the film let me down. I saw the story I thought I paid to see waft by in the opening title montage.

Tim said...

I am undoubtedly lucky in that I never saw it until about this time yesterday, and knew exactly what I was getting into.

spookycat said...

Thank you for the great review. I'm the one who thought the premise of this movie was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard and didn't care to check it out until a couple of years ago. I found it relatively well-aged compared to other action/sci-fi movies of early noughties partly thanks to great CGI and practical effects. And dragon-induced apocalypse? When the world is infested by zombie and vampire flicks like today, dragons seem to be a brilliant idea!

Mark said...

Here's hoping this helps you find a way to purge your shame and review Dragonslayer--I can think of no other sci-fi/fantasy classic(?) that is so maddeningly equal parts brilliant (and terrifying) and impossibly clumsy. But I still can't pass it up when it catches my eye. Would be fascinated to see you put your far more finely honed sensibilities to it...

Trish said...

Yes, you need to watch "Dragonslayer" already. Such a weird, bleak, crazy-go-nuts movie, but one with a story that at least makes an attempt at being thought-provoking and different and fantastic animation.

Fun Fact about "Reign of Fire" that I only learned recently: Apparently the failure of this movie led to the death of the long-rumored Mythical Creatures "Land" in Disney's Animal Kingdom. At the last minute, that land was swapped out for Camp Minnie-Mickey (yes, I know, fellow WDW fans. I would have guessed Dinoland was indeed a bunch of random and mostly no-budget attractions slapped together in haste, but remarkably it only looks like that). For the record, I am of the camp that dragons and unicorns would look no less ridiculous in the park than the creatures from "Avatar", but it looks like I am alone in that sentiment.

Kelsy said...

This movie is worth seeing out of pure WTF. It seems like a bizarre cast considering where all the lead actors ended up 10 years down the road and also dragons. I have to say, the Star Wars reenactment scene is one of my favorites. I mean, that's how you pop culture reference in a dystopia (I'm looking at Shrek in I Am Legend).

reventropy said...

Thank god for you, Tim. You articulate so well the half-formed thoughts my heart wishes it could get my brain to say. I've always had a soft spot for this movie because it seemed intelligently handled for what it was; lesson being, treat even the most apparently silly genre premise with enough respect, or sheer ambitious bravado, to make it as professionally as possible, and you'll get something that will probably never be 'deep', but can be intriguing as hell (what an oddball Reign is!). One of the strengths of the film is that through a treatment that seems to communicate much more thought under the hood than it probably actually had, it turns WTF ideas into ones that seem utterly plausible (paratrooper dragon combat). It's such a saving grace to have in a genre film this pandering.

And, yes, those dragons were goddamn marvelous. I think they easily trump the vast majority of CG in movies from the decade since. They were legitimately frightening, and I will never forget the tomato vineyard scene from the early stages.

Thanks for another great review.