July 17, 2002


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Here there be dragons
Reign of Fire resurrects an ancient enemy for troubled times.

By Annalee Newitz

AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE ALIEN race, armed with nothing but the crudest of weapons, has invaded the great European and American cities from the air, shooting flames and spreading terror. Its culture and methods are medieval, and yet it proves a formidable match for the mighty military-industrial complex of the first world. In the end, only low-tech brute force may be able to wipe out this fiery scourge of the skies.

Sound familiar? The plot of this summer's best B movie – the bravely non-ironic and pleasingly plot-holed Reign of Fire – sounds as if it could have been ripped from the patriotic headlines of any U.S. newspaper over the past several months. Now that we're knee-deep in the "war against terrorism," our pop culture is finally catching up with the ideological times. The cold war brought us some great monster movies, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955); now Reign of Fire may have spawned the first Islamic terrorist monsters with its badass fleet of C.G. dragons, who live under a punishingly harsh patriarchal regime and are seemingly obsessed with setting fire to London's subway system.

Directed by X-Files alum Rob Bowman, Reign of Fire hinges on the same seductive blend of pseudo-science, scatterbrained politics, and mythology that brought viewers back every week for the continuing adventures of Mulder and Scully. After a London subway construction project unearths an ancient dragon (in a tip of the hat to 1967 British S.F. classic Quatermass and the Pit), civilization is brought to its knees by a race of napalm-breathing, flying beasties whose single male leader can spawn thousands of baby dragons at a time by mating the same way salmon do: he flies overhead and just squirts his serpentine sperm over all the eggs his females have hidden across the land. In time, the female dragon population becomes so huge that the cannibalistic male dragon can just snack on one when he gets hungry.

In a quick montage during the film's opening sequence, we see a series of newspaper headlines that set the stage for the postapocalyptic world of the 2020 English countryside where most of the action takes place. "NATO faces a new challenge," one headline blares, followed by others that report the destruction of "major European cities" and "the American midwest." It's Osama! It's Saddam! Nope, it's a bunch of dragons! And yes, they're out to destroy our way of life.

We discover that the dragons have bred so fast and their napalm-breath weapons have proved so formidable that all the major countries of the world have been wiped out. The dragons "live to feed," our helpful narrator-hero Quinn (Christian Bale) tells us, and they eat ash – hence their desire to burn everything to a cinder. The eating-ash thing is just one of many marvelously ridiculous details that mark Reign of Fire as a true B-grade classic, rather than just a run-of-the-mill C.G.-sploitation flick. Add to this the implausible situation of Quinn and his lone band of survivors in their medieval castle – running water, plenty of gasoline, a giant coffeemaker, convenient horses to ride, teletypewriters, trained birds, several tanks, a helicopter – and you have the main ingredients of which cult screamers are made. At every turn, you can practically hear future MST3K nerds asking, "And why are they able to kill the dragon with a stick when the combined armies of the world failed?"

For all those reasons and more, Reign of Fire is sure to join the ranks of popular monster cheesefests like Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) in "midnite movie" sections in video stores across the nation. Audiences will love guffawing at nice boy Matthew McConaughey's bizarre Apocalypse Now-ish testosterone turn as the American dragon slayer Van Zan, who swaggers around shirtless, crotch thrust forward, and makes speeches about "American history" and how there's "no middle ground" in dragon battles. A perfect foil for Van Zan is brooding, reluctant Quinn, who wears sensitive turtleneck sweaters (always a bonus in the postapocalyptic future) and has a sappy father-son relationship with an orphaned boy named Jared. Plus, there are gratuitous skydiving scenes, exploding motorcycles, and of course, lots of dragon chomping. Most important of all, this movie takes itself utterly seriously. There's no hint whatsoever that anyone involved had a campy bone in his or her body.

Film critics and archivists have long argued that part of what makes for a great cult flick is its ephemeral nature: it has been churned out so quickly that its images and preoccupations are like time capsules of pop culture during a particular moment. What makes ephemeral films endure, paradoxically, is precisely their short shelf life. We don't watch Sinbad movies today for their enduring truths about the meaning of life. We gobble them up because their anachronistic claymation effects and wacky Islamic swashbuckling hero allow us to glimpse the sensibilities of a lost time – and, more often than not, let us laugh at them too.

There's no doubt that Reign of Fire has the hallmarks of a cult film partly because its weirdly convoluted political subtext refers to such a specific moment in U.S. history: the relatively short period during which this country has had to cope with deadly terrorist threats from a source very few Americans understand. Many of the dragons' distinguishing characteristics – a penchant for firebombing Western cities from the air, haremlike social relations, the fact that they date back to medieval times and are ultimately destroyed by people from the good old U.S. of A. – are symbolic echoes of what U.S. politicians are saying about Islamic peoples right now: that Osama bin Laden comes from a "medieval" culture, that Middle Eastern women are helpless victims of their evil male counterparts, and most of all, that people who worship Allah are all out to burn the West to the ground. If the world wants to be free, Bush would say, the world must trust the American military to make things right. Hey, it worked in Reign of Fire, right? When Van Zan comes to town, he bails out the weakling Brits with his anti-dragon weapons.

You can see similar ideas, played out quite differently, at work in two other culty dragon flicks: underground auteur Larry Cohen's claymation frenzy Q: The Winged Serpent and Dragonheart (1996), which features Sean Connery as the voice of a C.G.-ified dragon, with Dennis Quaid as his mullet-ified knight buddy. Q, made during a period when the United States was heavily involved in Central American and Mexican politics, features an ancient Aztec flying serpent named Quetzalcoatl who invades New York and eats nubile babes off Manhattan rooftops. Quetzalcoatl was the perfect monster for an era when guerrillas were invading American dreams and politicians were cracking down on illegals coming over the Mexican border. If we had just kept that border tightly policed, Quetzalcoatl would never have gotten into the country, right? Cohen also directed the politically minded B movies It's Alive! and The Stuff, and in his hands Q becomes a kind of fable about American nationalism and fear of dangerous, Mexican "others."

Dragonheart provides yet another way to look at dragons who stand in for political outsiders. While Q and Reign of Fire are all about the battles between humans and dragons, Dragonheart is a true product of Clinton-era multicultural tolerance. Here we learn that dragons are just misunderstood and that more than anything they want to be friends with humans. Draco, the C.G. fire-breather played by Connery, is so nice that he's even willing to be pals with Bowen (Quaid), who has spent most of his life slaughtering Draco's comrades. How nice that the last remaining dragon is willing to forgive whitey for the genocide of his people! Gee, wouldn't it be neat if the descendants of African slaves and Native Americans would do that too? Fat chance, sucker. At least in 2002, we know that when the dragons get mad, it's time to run for cover.

You know you want to watch Reign of Fire for the bitchin' dragons – and you won't be disappointed. These are the best dragons since Ray Harryhausen's claymation monsters in the Sinbad series. Once you start seeing the weird social messages, the flick only gets better. And funnier. And sadder, too. 'Reign of Fire' is playing at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.