“Shot Through the Heart” is a weekly segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week we’re talking about a weird little post-apocalyptic film – Reign of Fire!
I don’t want to hear a damn word against this movie. It’s fun, it’s ridiculous, and it’s the future. When y’all are tired of zombies and vampires and aliens I promise…you’re going to be happy you’ve got the dragon apocalypse.
I saw the trailer for this in February of 2002 and immediately got excited. I didn’t know who any of these people were at the time (I was 14 for crying out loud), so this was a totally concept-driven interest. Advertising promised dragons and apocalyptic mayhem, which was enough for me. 17 years later I’m still in love with this particular pile of nonsense.
The film revolves around Quinn (Christian Bale), a man leading a castle full of survivors through an apocalypse caused by the awakening of dragons from beneath the earth. His best buddy Creedy (Gerard Butler) is helping him run the place, but tensions are high due to constant fear. They spend their days working to keep the place up and full of hope, teaching the kids weird prayers and using old films as skits to keep everyone entertained. Things get complicated when Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) shows up from America, apparently flying in helicopters and calling himself a dragon-slayer. Things go nuts from there in the best way possible and I have more fun with this schlock than I do most other offerings of this sort and it comes down to just how seriously everyone is taking it.
Look, it’s an apocalypse because dragons. You buy it or you don’t, but if you’re willing to take the plunge then it pays off with interest. There’s a profundity in silliness, and most of the time it circulates in having a message. In 1954 Ishirō Honda released his groundbreaking film Godzilla, a story that took a man in a rubber monster suit and managed to display the absolute horror and fear surrounding the dawn of the nuclear age. Japan was struggling to come to terms with what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fearing their futures and attempting to put it into words. Honda’s film took all of that terror and popped it into a dinosaur-esque creature that exhaled nuclear fallout, effectively giving them a face to fear in the chaos.
Reign of Fire has a message about fear as well, but it’s fear of something different. We’re still scared of the atomic age, but we also continue to burrow deeper into fear of each other. For such a lily-white cast, it’s able to paint different countries as “other” in ways that are difficult to pull off in more serious films (at least without it feeling like pandering). Each piece of this nihilistic puzzle is meant to show us that Americans are cocky, brutal, aggressive, and driven. And that’s not an inaccurate depiction in the modern era of American economic structure, but it goes even further to bluntly display what that does to the rest of the world. This small community isn’t just afraid of the dragons that are burning their crops and lives to ash, they’re afraid of the American’s riding in on their big tanks and stealing away their best and brightest to use for war. It’s no coincidence that Van Zan comes in with his legs positioned over the barrel of a tank gun, his big ol’ metaphorical swingin’ dick aimed right at the last bastion of British life.
This is an attempt to find comfort in fear, a real shot at finding meaning in American expansionism and militaristic views. Van Zan isn’t exactly wrong, but his bravado and bullshit is dangerous to not just the British, but his own men. Their overly-bombastic weaponry doesn’t matter when in the end three good fighters will do a much more effective job. Hell, even his climactic moment is hollow and useless. These empty gestures are nothing compared to the small, calculated strikes. It resembles the Revolutionary War, even the actions of the Vietcong in ways (we lost that one, deal with it). It speaks to the needling of American culture that this is what we fear – bravado, shock and awe, and drenched machismo. This may not have a singular fear like Honda had, given the birth of the atomic bomb, but it has a similar attitude towards large-scale aggression in that same way.
Despite these wonderful themes, Reign of Fire also remains just a wonderful action film that delves into pop culture, legendariums, and even philosophical differences. It’s one of my favorite B-movie films and I still argue its merits to this day. Check it out, take your time with it, and just have a blast with dragons vs. tanks.