RIORI Vol 3, Installment 33: Richard Donner’s “Timeline” (2003)


The Players…

Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connelly, David Thewlis and Neal McDonough, with Ethan Embry, Matt Craven and Rossif Sutherland.

The Story…

Archaeology can be a dirty business. It can also be boring and thankless, contributing to the historical record to an indifferent public. It’s really tough bringing glimpses of the past to eyes of the modern age in the name of science and social development. One would assume that if the powers deemed possible getting the message out would require some tangible, active analog to our 21st sense of being. A time machine would be nice (chuckle).

No such thing exists. On purpose.

But Einstein—that devil of a physicist—once purported that if one could fold space-time (literally make ends meet), wouldn’t it result in a  shortcut? You know, the swiftest distance between two points is a straight line, regardless of the medium?

Uncle Al coined it a “wormhole.”

Betcha he never imagined such as gizmo would burp up in the French countryside.

The Rant…

Hey. If you were there, do you remember back in the 90s when all those movies adapted from Michael Crichton’s books were oozing from the cineplex? Sure you do; it was inescapable as death, taxes and overly extended jams at a Phish concert. You can either thank or blame the original Jurassic Park as the first sortie of Hollywood’s assault on Crichton’s library for that. Don’t get me wrong. The original Park was very fun and delivered with the trademark Spielbergian élan. But just cuz an Oscar-winning director does a bang up job of translating page to screen—the guy did have a little experience before with a tiny film called Jaws—doesn’t mean any studio worth their salt can just acquire the film rights to a successful novelist’s work and make it stick to the silver screen (e.g.: virtually every Stephen King movie ever made, past and future).

To which you say: no sh*t.

Don’t misunderstand me anymore than you usually do. I’ve read my fair share of Crichton novels. One of my favorite, desert island books is the man’s autobio/travelogue Travels. Of course I read Jurassic and many of his other books that ultimately went through the movie mill, almost all of them screw ups. As for the books, Congo, The Great Train Robbery, Eaters Of The Dead, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man and (another personal fave) Sphere varying in quality from pretty good to downright awesome. These titles all made it to screen. Some shouldn’t have. I mean, some had no business whatsoever being made into a movie. True Jurassic, Andromeda, Train and Terminal were damn fine. Hell, Crichton himself directed Train, did a good job and wisely hitched his wagon to Sean Connery lending some star power, so the guy knew a little about how to make a movie work. But those films were anomalies torn from Crichton’s pages. The remainder (and the list is long) sucked big dumb insert offensive sexual simile here.

Why was this? Crichton wrote primarily science fiction with the classic, no-fail tropes attached. Technology run amok. Meddling in God’s domain. Culture clash. Hard to f*ck up such simple, well-established story devices. But Hollywood did, over and over again. Still, there really was no wonder why the studios kept placing bets and throwing darts at Crichton movies. Since Jurassic Park made a mint, and that medical drama on TV ER was sucking up ratings, let’s hop on the bandwagon (a bandwagon Hollywood almost singularly created)! We got a cash cow to milk into Parmalat!

Uh, no. And not even Stamos could resuscitate the show towards the end of its vaunted run.

So again, why did most Crichton films tank? Of course I have a theory. Lissen hup.

Back in my high school days—not long after Jurassic had theatrical release—I immersed myself in Crichton’s catalog. As I said I read Travels, Congo et al with aplomb. I also mentioned my favorite novel of his was Sphere. For those not in the knowSphere was about a group of scientists who discover a spaceship on the ocean floor. Said spaceship appeared to come from the not-so-distant future and somehow got bounced back in time. The rest of the plot was simple: figure out how and why. Like with all good sci-fi, we had mystery, technodrama and the human condition examined into the ground but not before setting up some keen tension. Simple. Really. What made Sphere crackle was said human drama and the thrill of a mystery, both well rendered by Crichton’s pen. I caught Jurassic (the gateway drug), dug it and tore into and loved Sphere. Even back in those pimply, sexually frustrated adolescent days I knew that if Sphere ever made it to being a movie, they’d f*ck it up.

Fast forward to my college days. Me and my buddy Mark—I’ve mentioned him here before. We were java jockeys at the local cafe—were quite the bookworms. Every year before summer break we complied a list of must-read books to chew over before school reconvened in the fall. We always suggested to one another a personal recommendation. I had discovered via primitive online message boards that my beloved Sphere was gonna get the Hollywood treatment. The horror. I insisted, nay, demanded of Mark to read the book before the movie was released. I told him in no uncertain terms that the movie would ruin the book. They’d f*ck it up. For sure.

Mark heeded my words. The following fall he raved about the book, but he failed to regard my movie caution. He later caught the film version (inexplicably directed by Barry “Rain Man” Levinson). Christ, why I don’t know. Don’t look at it, Marian. Close your eyes. When I next saw him, he was stunned. I’m not kidding. Like “that newborn babe looks nothing like me” stunned. He shook his head after coming back from the cinema and told me, “Sh*t Nate, you were right. They f*cked it up. How’d you know?”

Here’s how I knew. My theory, which is steeped in centuries of fiction writing:

Sure, Crichton’s tales were littered with cool tech, intricate detailing (the man sure know how to do his research) and wild ideas. But that’s not what made his books great. Hell, none of that crap makes a story great. Whether it be time traveling spaceships, cloned dinosaurs or space viruses, it’s all frosting. All that sh*t is the hook, what initially nabs your attention. It’s characterization and how the cast reacts to the weirdness—that classic tension bringing about conflict and ensuing drama—that creates the backbone of the story. What keeps you turning the pages. Without interesting characters and compelling conflict (manifesting itself into “how do we get out of this mess?”), the whole narrative falls flat. What Hollywood has failed to understand time and time again is no matter how much whiz-bang you throw at the audience—adapted from a bestseller or otherwise—if you don’t got no meat on the bone, all that shiny ain’t gonna save a crap movie. And gristle can look mighty shiny.

I guess that applies to all stories, movie scripts included. Just a thought.

Since those heady days of nineteen ninety whatever, Crichton movie adaptations have fallen by the wayside. Probably too many turkeys courtesy of Tinsel Town to risk a loss leader. The last one made was back in 1999 with The 13 Warrior (adapted from Eaters Of The Dead) before Timeline lurched to life in 03. This is an eternity in Hollywood regarding riding a pony like Crichton’s works. I mean, look at today’s John Grisham output. Right.

Maybe taking a vacation away from movie adaptations of John’s smart efforts will prove good, if not better in the long run. I figure only time may tell.

Oh, shut up. That was f*cking brilliant…

You know that quote by Philip Burke? “Those who who don’t know history are destined to repeat it?” Most folks misquote that one as “doomed to repeat it.” Well, thanks to an overly high-tech “delivery service” with a thirst for knowledge that bent is more accurate.

Archaeology professor Ed Johnston and his son Chris (Connolly and Walker) are conducting some research in Southern France. The professor and his crew of the usual scruffy history buffs with scabby knees and permanent grime under their nails are hip deep in a dig. They’re carefully dissecting the ruins of Castelgard, an important stronghold from the Hundred Years war. In simpler terms: “pig in sh*t” territory.

To Chris, it ain’t nothin’ but another hole in the ground. Unlike his historian dad, Chris prefers his knees off the ground and hands clean. His dad knows his son isn’t cut out for archaeology, despite his respect for history. Ed also knows that Chris is only tagging along to get with Kate (O’Connor), one of the best and brightest students. It’s funny what guys’ll do to score a chick.

The dig proves to be a curious one. There are edifices here and there that are out of synch with the historical record. The anomalies intrigue Andre Merek (Butler), the site manager, but upset Professor Johnston. He gets a suspicion that the dig’s benefactors ITC have been tampering with things. Incensed at the possibility of his work getting botched, Johnston hauls ass out to HQ for an explanation.

He doesn’t get one. At least not in the conventional sense.

Meanwhile, Kate and Chris are crawling around the catacombs of Castelgard. Not only do they uncover more curious artifacts, but Kate accidentally trips over a very unique relic: a chipped and scratched lens from a pair of bifocals. The caves have been sealed from around 600 years; folks didn’t wear bifocals back then.

Especially ones with plastic lenses.

Fast forward to ITC. Where’s the Professor? How the hell could these dusty antiques be from six centuries ago be made only in the modern age? What’s going on at the site anyway?

ITC’s prez Rob Doniger (Thewlis) is hesitant to explain. Best leave it up to his right-hand man Kramer (Craven) to take the reigns:

“Have you ever heard of a wormhole?”

You know that quote attributed to Alexander Pope? “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” Yeah, somebody should’ve reminded Doniger and his cronies of that…

Okay. About that Crichton tech being misunderstood and/or misused. Timeline didn’t do that. It kept the technobabble short and F/X quick and tasteful. Everything after that fell on its face.

To be fair, tag “for the most part” at the end of the last finger point. I gotta admit, for all the movie’s flaws, director Donner. was hip to keeping the dread splash and dash in check with Timeline, at fate most Crichton-inspired films have succumbed to. He fell back on his strengths: make Timeline into an action/adventure. Instead of maverick cops and their shenanigans, we’ll do knights with swords a-clashin’. Sure, we’re gonna throw a sop to the Crichton purists out there (maybe the author himself), try to keep the movie sailing along with the concepts and characters at odds with one another with sharp tension. And Timeline did have that in fits and starts. But there were two major flaws colluding against the movie being…how shall I put this? Not sucking too much?

Here’s exhibit A: Donner, though a solid, journeyman director, has had no solid experience directing S/F movies, of which Timeline is toeing the line. Before you starts hurling beer cans at me, again, full ones this time hear me out (like you have a choice anyway, and ignore that back button in the upper left). I don’t consider the first two original Superman films S/F. They’re more fantasy/action movies with a lot of good, cheesy B-movie pulp nods, mostly from the cast (Brando being in the first and getting top billing alone is hilarious). Not hard S/F, or very soft either. Great stuff, but quite a different animal than Timeline, barring the scene where Supes recused Lois for the umpteenth time. No. For the most part Donner has been a spinner of action tales with a few comedic fantasy films along the way (e.g.: Ladyhawke, Scrooged, et al). Although he didn’t outright swamp the audience with info overload, like a lot of Crichton movies have a tendency toward, he did apply his almost signature 80s style directing panache to Timeline: “high concept” low production value with a healthy dose of attempting to be clever and/or cute. Sometimes it even works.

Not here. Timeline felt like it was reaching towards a 21st Century Jules Verne aesthetic. The film is too slick. Lacks bite. It’s hurried but not urgent. It has its exciting moments and was often entertaining, but smelled like cosplay/Renaissance Faire gone awry. Donner’s in yo face style does not let itself well to would-be “high concept” S/F; no room for subtlety. The guy didn’t seem to understand how S/F—especially Crichton’s—worked. You just can’t smack the audience upside the puss with a gym sock filled with glitter and expect them to just roll with it. I’m not talking the crucial “interior logic” paradigm that needs to be followed AT ALL TIMES in an S/F movie (do not dispute me; I read it in Popular Mechanics). I’m talking about a bait and switch here. The nifty time travel aspects of the film were all but abandoned by Act 3. Instead we got the aforementioned joust/history lesson. If Donner was on the ball, understood his source material and took notes from other Crichton scripts (e.g. Jurassic Park), Timeline might’ve been more engaging. Instead Donner saw Riggs and Murtaugh gallivanting across medieval France with no regard for diplomatic immunity. He lost the plot. Sure, he did a good job directing, but it meant for another film. Maybe The Goonies for grown-ups, which might not’ve been a bad thing if you think about it. Now do the Truffle Shuffle.

The other tech flaws with Timeline are myriad. The movie pulled the classic flub in trying to pull a huge info dump into a very small window. Again, like with so many past Crichton flicks, the science in his S/F got stripped bare and dumbed down to just the juicy bits. Sure, a few sparks of from the writer’s fevered imagination squeaked by, but this is Hollywood here and  we need to inject only enough smart to make it sell (or dumb, which is more probable). I repeat, I don’t think Donner really knew what he was getting into. Or just fell back on old formulas (some might say habits) and just galloped through production with not enough wisecracks at the ready. Oh, that and he hadn’t made a movie since (thankfully) the final Lethal Weapon film. Might’ve gotten a tad rusty like an old suit of armor (I’ll stop it now).

Now, enter exhibit B: The acting. It’s wooden, stiff. It’s likely Timeline‘s greatest fault. Our hero Walker tried to be strong, but his delivery came across as just plain awkward. It’s understood that the “reluctant hero” archetype is a favorite one, but his Chris came over as too reluctant. The character was passive and reactionary. I mean, he was trying to rescue his dad, for Pete’s sake. The least he could’ve done was overtly care. Don’t misunderstand me, Walker could play rough and ready (those Fast And Furious flicks are lacking without him, and they had a lot to lack, future ones also), but here he just seems rudderless. No love lost here for O’Connor, Thewlis and Connelly, too. All caricatures, all going through the stereotypical motions with next to no verve. The third tier characters were more interesting than the leads (especially Craven and Embry, God bless ’em).

The one bright spot in the cast of sleepwalkers was Butler’s Renek. His had a certain Captain Kirk vibe about him: kinda hammy, kinda funny, rather passionate. It wasn’t just me being a Trekkie, either. Renek was the only guy in this motley crew that gave a sh*t about what was at stake. Also not to mention his entrenched love of archaeology had him chewing into the historical record as he would have wanted to as if he was there. Good thing he was. Renek’s Han Solo scrappiness/Indiana Jones enthusiasm/insert any Harry Ford character’s charms here was a lot of fun and actually made you interested in the story when everything else had hopped the tracks.

Apart from Butler’s performance, wanna know another good thing Timeline possessed? Editing. Editors don’t really get the due they deserve. Movies aren’t put together in a linear fashion. At the end of the day it’s all patchwork, spackle and crossed fingers. Timeline felt seamless. I said it was slick, but it also was smooth. Almost everything here ran together well, so the throughput was a very direct execution amidst a messy fest of wonky S/F malarky, clipped exposition and Donner beating us over the head with a sledgehammer on speed. In sum, Timeline didn’t feel like two hours crawled by, and my attention span is about as long as look a puppy!

An aside: although I found Timeline‘s editing to be on the mark, I felt a small tweak was in order. I know, plenty of legit directors and scenarists have already “tweaked” with stories like this a jillion times over in the past with varying degrees of success. Based on watching a thousand more movies than any sane idiot would do, I think I learned a little bit. Not much, but here’s hoping: Timeline might’ve been a lot better with more of those sharp, angular cuts between “then and now,” modulating closer and closer, thereby heightening some tension (which this movie so desperately needed). If we got us a time travel piece here, relegating the “present” to the back seat kinda robs the story some of that urgency to make an adventure flick click. Just a thought. Don’t worry, though, no one at Paramount ever calls me back. Must’ve been my Star Trek/snuff film mash-up pitch.

So what have we learned? By my writing, not a lot, except I need more Lamictal and fewer cans of PBR down the throat. But I think all films have a message to send, even the cruddy ones. C’mon, a time travel tale, no matter how tepid, piques the brain cells. As far as I could glean from Timeline, the message there was this: how much have we f*cked with history? Like Walt Benjamin said, “History is written by the victors.” Hopefully not these victors.

One final thing (yer welcome): let’s just face it. You can thank (or curse) the original Jurassic for all the Crichton adaptations that followed in its wake. Most have been scattershot, usually a result of Hollywood grease or underestimating the audiences’ collective intelligence (my money’s on…both to be honest). You can’t write smart fiction and expect a guaranteed buck with it at the multiplex. It’s been proven time and again (remember Congo? Don’t) that technothrillers often loose their tech, characterization and backbones once they take a ride through the sawmill. I guess that’s inevitable. Too bad since Timeline had a lot of potential going for it, which got squandered by mismatching everything.

Anyway, about that R-rated Goonies concept. Sloth should be played by Steve Buscemi. Heavy duty CGI there.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Here we have it folks, the movie The Standard exists to be. A solid “I don’t know,” separate from scams, egos and hype. Timeline was lame, yet it tried hard to not be. The esteemed director was out of his league, but did his best. Paul Walker was the (diminished) lead. I like ice cream. In the endgame, this was a simple action movie with some fairy dust sprinkled over its glossy wings. Timeline would be the kind of flick you’d stumble onto via TBS and let the remote fall to the floor. Call it all a complement, really. Meanwhile I’m still waiting for Mad Max: Fury Road to get here via bruised disc because I can’t afford streaming and the flying monkeys—

Dang. Bitchiest verdict I ever posted. Tune in and enjoy the show this time and next time! I got this thing on my thigh to…never mind.

Stray Observations…

  • Hey, that’s Donner in the opening scene, driving the car.
  • “I’m not interested in the past.” Foreshadowing maybe?
  • Nice to see that goofball from Empire Records was still able to find work.
  • “Now we wait.”
  • I’ve heard that Crichton got often irritated with how his work was bowdlerized to film. You ever think he ever got really pissed about it? Who knows, but I bet he still cashed the checks.
  • “Please tell me you have a backup plan.” Mantra of the movie.
  • Is it because I’m of French heritage I generally dislike British fiction? Or is it I despise boiling everything before I eat?
  • I knew REDACTED was going to stay behind by Act 2. Hey, it’s a time travel flick. Something always gets left behind.
  • “…Why didn’t you listen to me?”
  • Trebuchets worked. It took weeks but they worked.
  • “It’s me!”
  • “Fire The Moat” would be a great name for some emo band. Who’s with me?
  • Paul Walker, the poor man’s Keanu Reeves. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
  • Postscript: After a hat trick of bleah movies, I’m gonna take some personal time to clear off my palette (that and a I have few days off of work). Mad Max: Fury Road was just unleashed on Netflix so I plan to indulge in all four films for the coming week. Just gimme a bit away from the loose cannon fodder and allow me to watch Mel Gibson and Tom Hardy drive us to the end of love. Deal? Call your mom.

Next Installment…

There is now an entire generation of kids who have no idea what the phrase “Be Kind Rewind” even means. I envy them.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 27: Rob Bowman’s “Reign Of Fire” (2002)


The Players…

Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Butler and Izabella Scorupco, with David Kennedy, Ben Thornton and Alice Krige.

The Story…

Rudely awoken from the depths of London, an incredibly dangerous, powerful force has been released by man. The consequences soon become beyond dire, threatening the whole of the populace.

What’s happened? Fault lines tearing up earthquakes? Sinkholes consuming the high rises? Busted gas lines ready to blow?

Something is ready to blow, all right. Dragons. Left slumbering for millennia and drilled out of there creche, the creatures now strike out at any living thing, burning them to cinders in their wake. Cities fall. People flee to the four winds only later to be devoured. Once proud metropolises teeming with both people and technology are now killing jars so the beasts may feed. Humanity will surely be wiped out by these once thought mythological monsters unless by some miracle can stop them.

And you thought sewer rats were bad.

The Rant…

This one’s gonna get a bit goofy. But hey now, we all a little mad now and then.

That being said, it’s time to get hooked up to the ol’ nostalgia Cuisinart again.

*attaches probes to the temples*

There. Hold still. Struggling will only make it hurt more. Bite down. That’s better. Care for a latte?

Speaking of lattes, we’re gonna truck it back a few decades to the 90s when ‘ere blogger was but a wisp of a teen.

*tightens restraints*

Ah. I see you know this bit. My soapbox, my words. That’s what you came here for in the first place. Right? Well, that and the cookies. So here’s my cookie.

When I was a teen in the early 90s, most of the TV shows I followed with any regularity were S/F programs. Shows like Star Trek: TNG,  Quantum Leap and The X-Files. If you know anything about sentence structure my volunteer, you’ve probably figured out that the last show is the raison d’être for our rant today. Quite right. Here, have another cookie.

Barring the latest reboot (ugh) of that seminal series, the original X-Files was the next logical step/spawn from a classic 80s “weird happenings” program, Unsolved MysteriesX-Files creator Chris Carter must have dubbed the entire series run onto VHS for his personal library. With Robert Stack’s creviced face and sonorous growl explaining the dangers of UFO abductions and playing around in God’s domain birthed the goofy, wily, spooky hijinks for Mulder and Scully to muck about in.

The X-Files also had a very simple premise, too. It was basically a police procedural in The Twilight Zone. Two FBI agents—one a believer, the other a skeptic—investigated “strange incidents” that are just barely within the Bureau’s jurisdiction. Or plausible denial (the votes read mostly the latter). Things like UFOs, cryptozoology, technology run amok, all buttered with endless conspiracy theories. It was great, chewy, cheesy B-movie fun. Fox Mulder was eerily funny—a true believer, if you will, if not an enthusiast for such weird investigtions—and Dana Scully was like the chick in the slasher flick that investigates the noise in the basement wielding only a candle (while we at home scream at her to run or get a goddam flashlight at least, Praise Jeebus). She got scared real good a lot. Good times alone with the tube.

Yep. I was an X-Files fan in them teenage stone age days. Every Friday on Fox, well before their pagan news channel, I’d plop down in front of the tube for an hour and simultaneously giggle and shiver. At least for the first season or so. The novelty got pissed away rather quickly. It wasn’t the show got bad (‘tho there were a-plenny of clunky eps) or plot lines got too convoluted (that came later), but I felt that the series started to take itself way too seriously. Like the investigations Mulder and Scully tackled were akin to the Rosenberg case. No. It was about aliens, werewolves and conspiracies. And feeling spooked. That’s all. The winking silliness of the show slowly gave way to a feeling of DIRE UPMOST IMPORTANCE. Conspiracies within conspiracies. Humor waning. It was almost like being delivered some Scientology sermon each Friday night, like America needed to hear the gospel according to Cancer Man. The X-Files was a cult show that (almost) spawned a for real cult. Or at least tried to. Not sure why. Weird.

In short, X-Files started to preach a gospel, and it quit being entertaining. What was a fictionalized version of Unsolved Mysteries morphed into a manifesto for paranoid freaks and geeks everywhere in TV land. That was when I turned off the TV. Wasn’t fun anymore; crawled up its ass. But, hey. I can’t deny some of those early eps of X-Files were indeed high-end fun and steeped in classic B-movie sensibilities. Sometimes more than a  liberal bit o’ creepy, too. And the writers weren’t ever afraid got downright weird with their scripts (Fringe caged a lot of their ideas from X). The weirdness later on in the series, which started as a hook, devolved into either weirdness for weirdness’ sake or a case of the writer’s putting themselves into a corner. Kinda like that abandoned farmhouse the survivors holed themselves up in Night Of The Living Dead.

Of course the original! You f*cking churlish, hipster Philistines you.

Hey, that reminds me. An X-Files episode that addressed weirdness, isolation and the apex of what the show’s writers could pull off. It was called “Gender Bender.” It was most unsettling. Maybe you saw it too. Something about a sex cult but not a sex cult but more of a murder bordello but maybe more. Sex sells, y’know, and it sold me (the little hothead post-puber I was). It also sold me on gender identification, and how subjective it was. I was f*cking 13Prime moment, wrong viewer. Still it stirred the soup enough to get my attention to later scour Wikipedia about the what-the-f*ck machinations that went into that mind wipe. One of the things I uncovered was that some upstart TV writer X-Files enthusiast directed that episode, and hand thumb deep in its writing also.

*subject writhes under its restraints, odor of pee detected*

His name was Rob Bowman. He later directed the X-Files big screen jump, Fight The Future. That movie stunk. A fevered dream written by a fanboy assuming the general/casual X-File loved the series as much as he did. The center did not hold. But his left-of-center panache for making flavored TV eps for other shows as well as a handful of big screen schlockfests barfed onto his resume. Most of it turned out to be entertaining. Not first season X-Files entertaining. Definitely not Fight The Future entertaining (which was, at heart, just a high concept/high budget long continuation of the TV series). But it all was in good fun. That’s what matters, right?

*shoves powdered donut into subject’s face*

*smiles, gives thumbs up*

Right. So despite his weird track record, Bowman knows a thing or three about mutated S/F stories. “Gender Bender” got a lot of flack back then for its probing commentary about sexual identity. On a prime time, highly-rated TV show, no less! This was the 90s. Internet hookups—all five of them—still squawked when you dialed in. The Earth was still reeling after Cobain ate a shotgun salad. F*cking Clinton was trying to woo Gen X into voting for him by playing a flat sax version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on Arsenio’s show (between his takes for voice-acting on “The Real Ghostbusters”). Yep, the 90s were weird, and since we don’t talk about gender politics anymore, Bowman’s effort was for naught. His work is on the shelf with moldering My Mother, The Car scripts.

Quit squirming. What?

What’s that about this S/F drama the guy shot? As director? Not like Fight…no not like that, huh?

Did you say dragons? Lemme remove that. Sounds interesting, kinda like being pulled from Carter’s canon.

No f*cking? Strike one. But it’s weird, huh? Not too far removed from the series’ feel? Hmm. These dragons aliens I hope?

Be honest and you’ll get another donut. Jelly this time…

It’s just lunch.

Young Quinn (Thornton) simply does his after school ritual to check up on his mum. A simple brown paper bag (there might be an apple in there) is his bait. His mum (Krige) is his quarry. For insufferable weeks the woman has been managing a very uncooperative vein that could either wreck or ruin the underground project. Quinn being Quinn scuttles off to see what the hold-up is. After being prodded by a loutish digger, Quinn crawls into what looks like an antechamber, oddly warm. When he gets some sort of volatile acid spat into his face he quickly, fearfully runs for his dear life. Those wings. That roar. That fire.

Old Quinn (Bale) has been keeping on it since then. It was a dragon, and very little of the thing resides in mythology. It was a fire-breathing abomination. One of many. Thousands. That digging woke up the alpha. Years bore on from that rebirth, and the Earth burned for it. Sure, several pockets of humanity are trying to eke out an existence obeying the new nature of fire and consumption versus crops and not getting incinerated. Sustenance against survival; one cannot exist hand in hand anymore. The flying furnaces will just torch it all if it displeases them. All Quinn can do to fight back is keep the many orphans under his wing to be orphans for another day.

Then one day, those damned tanks roll into Quinn and his family’s fortress/plantation. That day he had a plan. Quinn has been a scholar of dragons. He knows how to hide. He understands what to conserve. He knows how to defend. He knows a day will come when a vile dragon will torch his fragile existence to the coals. But those damned tanks.

A Yank by the name of VanZandt (McConaughey) has arrived with his elite, maverick, totally unorthodox dragon fighters (backed by a phalanx of worn-out, 20th Century tanks and curiously decked out choppers) to save the day at Quinn’s compound. Van claims to know how to take out the alpha dragon’s nest deep in London with his arsenal, and has learned Quinn knows the nature of the beasties. He presses a pseudo-pascifict Quinn into helping him, ghost of mum or no. Yes, these monsters have torn Earth asunder. But does aggression really work against even more aggressive monsters? All they do it eat, fly, burn, eat again and occasionally piss petrol. Really, getting pissed in the eyes by a dragon as a lad is one thing. So says Quinn.

There is no other thing. Just dig deep, dig hard and watch the skies.

And keep on track of what’s left over from lunch…

Now then, let me unlock that mouthpiece. Ah.


*insert donut, apply herbal massage*

There we go. Thanks for your patience. When you come to, you’re gonna need some patience to crawl through Reign Of Fire. No worries. It’s not that bad a movie. But you gotta have your brakes checked beforehand, and not for a lack of road safety. Chill out; dragons don’t drive.

Reign has Bowman back in his oeuvre. This indeed a B-movie for sure, make no bones about it. But now our dear director has a larger budget and even big name stars at his command. We know the man flexed his muscles with The X-Files already, and it shows here. Unlike Fight The Future, Reign illustrates his CV in a proper way. Also unlike Future, this film has a very sharp feel. Crisp and purposeful. It bounces along with a sense of urgency that all sci-fi/action/dragon epics should aspire to. That is, until we gotta apply some brushstrokes from the multihued palate of drama. But that’s for later on. The hazy fog of mystery still clouds Reign, but now its used as atmospherics and not bowing to some established plot device.

But me being ever so contrary, the funny thing when watching Reign is even with its dire nature and bleak outlook, it didn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic disaster. It felt like a typical X-Files ep. I know, I know. I’ve already hammered this to death, but a tiger cannot chew off its stripes. Reign’s a big deal X if there ever was one, but since Bowman’s strength lay in TV his sensibilities it’s natural to have that bleed onto the big screen. In Reign‘s case, it’s blissfully (still only mostly) separate from the wagon train the director once hitched himself to. Our show’s still weird, but stylishness remains, and that is a good thing. If the only thing you walk away with from seeing Reign is a satisfaction of seeing people in peril against an otherworldly foe trying to reaffirm their dwindling sense of humanity. Cheers?

Want another donut yet?

By this point, my installment must seem pretty limp. I ain’t dismantling Reign as I have other towering achievements of boom and blast that have wandered into my BD player’s vision. It’s okay. We can’t always have vivisection regarding Scorsese’s Casino (it was too long) some other time. Reign was a goof, a big smash and grab action film. A film almost specifically designed for RIORI. So if you haven’t connected the dots yet, it’s time to let the scales fall from your accursed hipster eyes. Never fear, I’ll still try to fart in your general direction if you follow.

*straightens tie*

I’ll reel it in. Been much too perilous. Sallie forth.

If you’ve been a sharp tack, you’ve probably figured out that this installment regards Reign as a very roughhewn, silly film. After all, name the last dragon-flavored action flick that wasn’t a tad silly? Correct. Reign is no exception. A lot of that silliness stems from the plot. The concept of dragons roaming the earth after hibernating for millennia—also in turn trying to validate the creatures reason for existing—is straight out of a comic book. I know we’re not aiming for historical and/or scientific accuracy here. What would be the point? It’s all about the delivery that makes Reign unintentionally funny. I’m not complaining, not really. But it’s hard to take an action movie like this seriously when it takes itself  seriously, you dig? It always comes crashing down into nuttiness that way.

Yet for its goofiness, Reign maintains a sense of style. Hell, if the plot is wonky, you better make the world of it interesting. And there are quite a few novel things going on here that’ll grab your attention. For me, I really dug the set designs. There were a lot of nice touches Bowman spattered here and there. Despite this film is supposed to delve into Road Warrior territory, the British countryside still looks pristine. Wait. Not pristine exactly. Medieval. This is a dragon dragon flick, right? And the world has gone off the grid. Only thing to do is band together for survival. The interiors of the buildings are grim, dank warrens of low light and desperation. No one looks very 21st Century. Hard to when you’re always under the threat of a siege, slapping together very DIY defenses. The cinematography is nice, and does a good job of conveying the world as alternating between Dark Ages and the firebombing. Very clever work, Bowman. Set the mood, set the style.

Now. Let’s talk casting. We’re already in agreement that Reign is absurd. One best have on hand a bunch of actors that can bind the pudding. Again, we succeed here. Subject one, our hero Quinn. Christian Bale’s a good actor, although no one you’d ever think be hand-picked for an action movie. He’s our everyman here, our avatar for traversing this ashy world. There’s a nice twist about personal responsibility driving our lead (not to mention his exhaustive research about his winged foes), which makes him sympathetic. Also, the reluctant hero schtick is guaranteed to make the star our bud for as long as the movie lasts. Sometimes, ever better, afterwards. So yeah, Bale did well with what was handed him.

It’s a law in the annals of literature that characters must be likable. Bzzzt. Wrong. Do not pass Go, do not collect your senses. Characters must be relatable. Moreover, they should be interesting. So Subject two, Quinn’s foil VanZandt. I think McConaughey was coming out of his starving years with Reign. Either that or he had a hankering to play someone who was kinda nuts and in need of Rogaine. VanZandt is a rather offensive creature, sometimes dipping into a caricature redolent of one too many Escape From New York weirdos. But he is interesting (and maybe the only intentional comic relief in this picture) if only for the fact Matt portrayed him. All scruffy and growly, waxing philosophical about how to handle the little dragon issue, VanZandt chomps cigars and has all the swagger of a colonel in the Pentagon circa 1965 to 1975. He’s a real troublemaker here, if you hear what I’m screaming. Sure, he hams it up, but based against the surrounding story, give the guy some concessions. He’s supposed to be the heavy.

Technical sh*t. Might as well be a shopping list. More like a grab bag actually. Like, you ever try to keep to the list when you bound out to Wegman’s or wherever only to come home with myriad different stuff? Reign‘s like that. All lot of good stuff squeezed against, “Oh brother.” For each good bit, there’s a distraction. The straight drama is forced, almost cheesy. Despite Bale being a solid actor, occasionally his classical training interferes with the deliberate stupidity of the movie. A small stripe of VanZandt would’ve helped here.

Reign may be crisp and bouncy, but that’s at first. The pacing—quit groaning, lest you get the lash again—is inconsistent. First the film flies, then drags. From the genuinely engaging chopper chase scene to when VanZandt busts out the battle-axe (really) I was like “what the?/oh yeah,” the film had me. But the creeping through wasted London and the whole “meaning of life” navel-gazing, well, buoyancy starts to peter off here. This disrupts any genuine tension in the story. We’re left only with curiosity, namely, “Where the heck are we going here?” We slowly cease to care about our characters, just wanting to reach a point where everything makes sense. We are dealing with nonsense, true, but even kooky movies shouldn’t unintentionally make us baffled. Reign’ plot progression winds down. The story may be hinky, but its gotta get somewhere. Remember, three act structure?

Don’t get me started with the injections again.

All the pieces have to fall into some kind of order. Bowman wrote for TV. Episodic television on a primarily S/F show. Proper S/F/fantasy process: the Maguffin should be the raison d’être on a minimal level via dialogue and/or melodrama in order to build up steam for the real deal in the third act. Well, the third acts gets soggy, as if Bowman wasn’t sure where to go after all the bombast. The steam gradually evaporates. The big showdown, instead of going out with a proverbial bang, fizzles out into a low rent version of Jaws’ finale. We get that big head of steam built up, and the final confrontation devolves into farting and all sunny. It’s kind of a letdown. But the CGI was solid at least. Soundtrack was goo, too.

Here’s the hell of it though, Reign may have dragons and a shorn Matty, there’s an allegory here somewhere. It’s the most subtle thing about a film decided not very subtle (read: battle-axe). There’s a clever device, an undercurrent if you will (and you will. Refresh your beverage?) at work here. Beneath all the fire and ash, we ain’t really talkin’ dragon slaying in Reign. We have two camps trying to solve the same problem. Here it’s culture clash, territoriality, vestiges of civilization trying to make an argument for which is better and will ultimately triumph with survival. We have the passive Brits bounced against the gung-ho Americans. Here’s where real tension lies, but it’s buried underneath the overly alpha plot. Tension via miscommunications. It’s never overt, but it might raise eyebrows if you look for it beneath all the histrionics. Foreshadowing maybe. In sum, the Brit keeps his shirt on; the Yank tears his off. This is all about class warfare.

But in the endgame, all the clutter makes Reign feel one-note. It’s fun in fits and starts, but gets muddled with dross and distractions. I felt that a movie about an end-of-the-world, fire-breathing dragons, screaming and scattering people would result in a lot more oomph. There’s a lot of good sh*t, but it gets all scrambled over the course of 100 minutes. It can leave you bewildered and with a headache.

Speaking of bewildered, we gotta do something about them soiled shorts. Phew. I think another latte is out of the question. By the by, you got any inquiries, like what the Black Oil was all about?

*spits out bite guard, commences to chew through leather straps*

Sorry, Mom.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservations. Like I said, lot of cool stuff here, bogged down by the eventual uncool stuff I mentioned above. I guess you gotta watch this with the proper mindset, namely one under the influence of weed and Sterno. BTW, McConaughey got no hair here.

Stray Observations…

  • Reenacting Star Wars in a church. Can we say meta?
  • There are fire extinguishers everywhere. Wink.
  • Was that Dr Bashir? (answer: yes)
  • “Only one thing worse than dragons: Americans.” Voting lines have been drawn.
  • How’d VanZandt get the US tanks overseas? I must’ve missed something.
  • The Jimi bit was corny.
  • “Dig your own holes. Die in ’em.” I remember Lolapalooza, too.
  • “This town’s gone to Hell.”
  • Call me silly, but it’s nice to hear Wooderson’s Texas twang again. With or without a precise hairline (okay, I’ll lay of the bald sh*t now. Good thing I’m done. For many reasons).

Next Installment…

A kidnapping’s gone down in Boston, but it may for the best. Sh*tty home, druggy mom, unsafe neighborhood. Whatever. In the end, she’s Gone Baby Gone.