The latest such venture, "X-Files" director Rob Bowman's "Reign of Fire," is more faithful to the format but also more creative in diverging from it, spicing things up with a healthy dose of mythic lore patterned after the "Godzilla" and "Alien" formulas. A present-day prologue and a "Road Warrior"-style voiceover establish the situation for the year 2020 -- a world ravaged to the verge of oblivion after two decades of unsuccessfully battling real, honest-to-Hades fire-breathing dragons. The creatures, it's explained, thrive in evolutionary fits and starts -- hibernating when all life has been decimated and emerging again only after nature has replenished their food supply.
By 2020, a mere handful of humans remain, mostly cloistered in remote, primitive colonies. Quinn (Christian Bale of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin") leads one such colony in a desolate region of England. He is also the lone survivor of the cataclysmic incident from which the first dragon was unleashed those two decades prior. For Quinn, surviving the dragons isn't just a matter of life and death; it's personal.
Apparently, though, not personal enough. Living in fear and isolation has driven a wedge between some of the members of his colony as the future becomes more and more bleak. And that's when the Marines arrive. Literally. Accompanied by tanks and a helicopter -- fixtures that many humans haven't seen in decades -- a contingent of American troops emerges from the mist. There is immediate friction between Quinn and the head American, a cigar-chomping, muscle-head named Van Zan ("Frailty's" Matthew McConaughey) who claims to know how to slay the dragons. But it's a friction that cannot last long if either is to realize his objective against a common enemy.
His name no longer appears on this Touchstone production's credits, but early promotional material for the film did cite "The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" scribe Terry Hayes as a co-screenwriter. And, although the unpredictable fates of screenwriting arbitration have seen fit to remove his credit, his fingerprints are unmistakable. "Reign of Fire," in fact, may be the best "Mad Max" film to not feature the character of "Mad Max." It is also, however, a classical dragonslayer film in every sense, completing a natural evolution that has been in the making since the early '80s, with "Dragonslayer" and "Q: The Winged Serpent," and continuing with director Rob Cohen's more recent "Dragonheart." "Reign of Fire" represents the ultimate culmination of that process, a seamless merging of high concept and technology that dwarfs all previous pretenders. Oscar-caliber visual effects and art direction give "Reign of Fire" both a chillingly convincing apocalyptic setting and a blood-curdling vision of real dragons. Many films have aspired to depict such a bleak reality, but few have so effectively pulled it off. Even those portions of the script that veer into corniness or amateur-hour exposition tumble away unobjectionably under the cautious delivery of able actors like Bale and McConaughey, both of whom also sport gym-hardened, muscle-bound physiques for filmgoers less impressed by such things as acting.
Still, genre fans may not be entirely happy with the movie. Marketing materials and artwork suggest a film on the order of "Independence Day" with fleets of helicopters battling hoards of dragons when, in truth, the movie features only one helicopter and but a handful of humans whose quest centers largely around a single dragon. Limited though it may sound, that premise actually allows Bowman and his collaborators to focus more intently on generating suspense and tension, and on crafting a believable context for a potentially preposterous premise. If the filmmakers can be faulted for anything, it's that they almost make it look too easy. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco and Gerard Butler. Directed by Rob Bowman. Written by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum. A Buena Vista release. SF/Action. Rated PG-13 for intense action violence. Running time: 102 min