FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *sociological,* (2) *cosmological*
The appearance of the word "fire" isn't the only reason I paired these unrelated films. I've also done so to spotlight my own preference for a well-done if formulaic film over one that doesn't know how to handle its own ambitions.
REIGN OF FIRE was a box-office failure in its day, and though it's fairly watchable, I can see why it didn't move audiences, despite the star talents of Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. REIGN is another addition to the populous genre of the post-apocalyptic film. However, much of the charm of that genre lies in its abilities to (1) eradicate everything viewers may dislike about their real-life histories, and (2) erect some marvelous landscape or phenomenon to take its place. Whether it's the endless driving-spaces of MAD MAX or the grotty perils of zombie hordes, the new world has to be interesting in some way.
The film starts by showing one of the film's heroes, Quinn, as a British child who witnesses the recrudescence of a race of fire-breathing dragons in the early 21th century. The dragons, who have been sleeping beneath the earth since prehistoric times, immediately start burning everything in sight, for they feed only by devouring the ashes of what they burn. In the space of less than thirty years, the human race is nearly eliminated, both by the dragons' attacks and by futile counter-attacks by the world's military. Only isolated tribes of humans have survived, and one such tribe, led by a grown-up Quinn (Christian Bale) resides in a castle in Northumberland. Unfortunately, the dragons frequently attack the tribe's crops, so that the humans are in more danger of starvation than direct attack.
A detachment of American soldiers-- or rather, ex-soldiers, given the annihilation of most governments in the world-- shows up on the doorstep of Quinn's tribe. The hardnosed Van Zan (McConaughey), leader of the detachment, informs the Britons that he and his men (and one female soldier) have figured out the way to hunt and kill dragons. Further, after the soldiers demonstrate their prowess with one such conquest, they want Quinn's help in locating and killing the only male dragon in the flock, so that the creatures will die out and give humanity another chance. The hub of the conflict is that Quinn must overcome his conservative instinct to protect his tribe, and join Van Zan's group in order to save humanity.
The dragons, while their FX are well realized, are conceived as no more than a biological infestation. One can't expect them to have any of the symbolic heft of the dragons of myth and legend-- and yet the script doesn't show any interest in their biology beyond describing their weaknesses. They aren't especially believable in terms of biological patterns, either: they're supposed to have fallen into their deep sleep because they destroyed the dinosaurs with their flames, and so cut off their own food-source. That's a pretty dumb sort of predator that does that!
The primary interest in REIGN is sociological. In general terms the story pits the proactive Van Zan against the merely reactive Quinn, and though Van Zan is right in his quest, Quinn is the one who survives to deal the final blow. Since the viewers don't see the rest of the world destroyed, the focus on the devastation in England may have been patterned after the London Blitz of World War II-- not least because it's American troops who come to the rescue. However, this re-playing of 20th-century history isn't enough to make REIGN's world interesting.
FIREBALL doesn't have much money or much ambition, but it does much better on its limited terms. It seems to have premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel, which is usually the haven of tedious monster-flicks with desultory action and cheap CGI. FIREBALL doesn't have any more money than the other flicks, but the action is nicely staged and the two leads, Lexa Doig and Ian Somerhalder, display a good chemistry as they work to take down the "fireball monster."
Said monster is an out-of-control former linebacker, Tyler Draven (Aleks Paunovic). After unleashing his bad temper on several innocents, Draven is jailed. Part of his bad behavior may be attributable to his having witnessed his mother's death at the hands of his father, but a more influential culprit may be the special steroids he's been taking. A fire breaks out at Draven's place of incarceration, killing everyone except Draven. Later he regenerates from his burns, and develops the ability to channel balls of pure flame from within himself, and hurl them at targets just like the comic-book Human Torch.
The best thing about FIREBALL is that the script buttresses its premise with loads of well-researched tech-talk about the genesis of "pyrophoric" (learned a new word!) phenomena, all supplied by sexy fire inspector Williams (Doig). She and FBI agent Somerhalder are nowhere near in Draven's league, so this does not register as a combative film-- but they do a very good job of outmaneuvering the pyrotic psychotic. The psychological angles of Draven's temper-tantrums aren't any more interesting than Williams's "daughter-who-wants-to-be-like-Daddy" routine, but the action is well mounted and the dialogue is generally pretty sharp.