After a few decades of dormancy, Western monster movies started to make a comeback in the ‘90s. Movies like Jurassic Park and Tremors offered clever twists on old-fashioned genres, though the massive flop of 1999’s Godzilla cooled temperatures considerably when it came to watching giant monsters destroy things.
A few years after Godzilla, audiences confirmed that they were tired of such movies with the failure of 2002’s Reign of Fire, a sci-fi fantasy adventure about dragons taking over the Earth. In a year that saw both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter deliver second installments that marked them massively successful Hollywood franchises, audiences displayed little interest in watching a movie solely about dragons — especially one without much surrounding lore.
But Rob Bowman’s movie, starring a pre-Dark Knight Christian Bale, a pre-True Detective a pre-True Detective Matthew McConaughey, and a pre-300 Gerard Butler, has enjoyed a surprisingly long afterlife. It’s been hailed for its design, predating Harry Potter and Game of Thrones in how impressively and realistically its dragons appeared and functioned.
Beyond visual and story mechanics, the movie mostly just works as intended: it sets the stage for giant dragon fights and promptly delivers. For the most part, Reign of Fire could stand on its own against any of today’s MonsterVerse kaiju movies, for example.
That’s in no small part because of its cast, which also features GoldenEye’s Izabella Scorupco. Speaking to Vice about the movie’s fifteenth anniversary in 2017, Bowman noted the movie’s timing by asking, "How many years ago could you say you can afford to put Christian, Gerry, and Matthew in the same movie?"
At the time, Bale was gaining recognition for his unhinged work in American Psycho, while McConaughey was just starting the romantic comedy-era of his career with The Wedding Planner. Reign of Fire sees both of them playing against these types: Bale is the responsible and steadfast Quinn, leading a small and dying community of survivors outside of London. McConaughey, playing American military commander Denton Van Zan (an objectively great name), suddenly shows up at his group’s heavily fortified compound, asking for help.
Reign of Fire offers some surprising pleasures, showing that a brief pause or moment of levity can go a long way in a properly executed monster movie. The community Quinn runs with Gerard Butler’s Creedy mainly seems to get torched (over and over again) by the dragons that roam the landscape, but the few moments when these characters are not on the run are charming.
Particularly, there’s a scene where Quinn and Creedy re-enact Darth Vader’s famous reveal in The Empire Strikes Back as a play for the community’s children, with Butler as Luke and Bale as Darth Vader. Beyond the inspired casting, this is very much what two guys in their late 20s and early 30s would do if they suddenly had to run a colony of children.
The first shot of a dragon is also tremendous fun. Reign of Fire opens with a young boy going to meet his mother on a construction site for a London tube station. As he explores underground, he puts his hands on a wall the audience suddenly realizes is skin. Bowman needed his dragons to have “some relatability to the various predators that exist,” he told Vice, trying to find a combination between the skin one “would find on a king cobra, with a little texturing, let's say from an alligator.”
But such entertaining moments aside, Reign of Fire moves with efficiency. The audience is introduced to the dragons early on, and from there Bale quickly describes in a voiceover how they took over the planet, breeding faster than they could be killed.
A major hurdle for the world (and later, the box office) was proving to everyone that dragons were real in the first place. By the time people understood the danger to their ways of life, it was too late. By the time Reign of Fire opens, human communities spend its time reciting proper instructions for escape, although their crops appear in poor condition due to constant dragon attacks.
Enter a bald McConaughey with tattoos down his arms, proudly declaring himself part of the Kentucky Irregulars, a group of dragonslayers. Reign of Fire has little time for lore; the audience only learns Quinn’s background out of its characters, and barely anything is explained further about the dragons. All that can be confirmed is that, yes, these are the same dragons people wrote about in the Middle Ages, the ones that actually killed the dinosaurs and whose fire comes from glands in their throats.
Inspired by the noxious defensive chemical blasts formed in the mouth sacks of bombardier beetles, Bowman told Vice “that's anatomy. That's already been designed, so we're going to draw from there.” It’s a small detail that allows the movie to hammer home the fact that its dragons are not magical, but rather flesh and blood animals of Earth. A little bit like Predator, Reign of Fire sets up an impossible enemy and then sets out to prove it can be taken down.
Reign of Fire lacks some of that movie’s flair, and its sets are almost entirely blackened ash. But the film makes up for its visual shortcomings with strong character work, efficient storytelling, and dragons that feel like real enemies. It blazed a lot of trails — pun intended — for the dragons that would follow after.
Reign of Fire is now streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S.