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and Tony R. Abrams
Funny how the most convincing sci-fi visions of the future look like the past. Set in the dragon-infested year 2020, Reign of Fire appears mostly medieval, although the few people who have survived the fire-spitting beasts still maintain fragments of 20th- and 21st-century technology. The terrorized humans live in a candlelit (but not unelectrified), monasterylike settlement in darkest Northumberland. They’re led by the psychically scarred but cagey Quinn, who remembers vividly how the plague began: As a schoolboy, he was present when an underground dragons’ nest was disturbed by construction for the London Underground. (At least now we know why the Jubilee Line extension was so far behind schedule.)
Director Rob Bowman (an X-Files veteran) propels the story on wings of fire. After quickly recounting the day that Quinn first met a dragon, the movie efficiently montages the worldwide destruction that followed. As far as Quinn (a pumped Christian Bale) and his unmerry band know, they’re the only people left on the planet. Then Van Zan (a pumped and tattooed Matthew McConaughey) appears with a squadron of American fighters, complete with tanks and a helicopter. The latter is piloted by Alex (former Bond girl Izabella Scorupco), the only woman in the dragon-toasted future worthy of a speaking part. The coming of the Yanks highlights the film’s other historical precedent: the Battle of Britain, with the merciless dragons taking the place of Nazi firebombs and the cocky Americans in the role of, well, cocky Americans.
A cross between Patton and Mad Max, Van Zan doesn’t want to tell Quinn why he’s brought his anti-dragon offensive to the Incinerated Kingdom. After a few skirmishes with the enemy build some trust, however, the Americans reveal their strategy: They think the Big Daddy dragon lives in what’s left of London, and if he’s slain the dragon siege will soon lift. Two more encounters with dragons barbecue most of the surviving supporting characters, leaving just Quinn, Van Zan, and Alex to travel to London for the final showdown. That’s when the epic scale, carefully evoked atmosphere, and persuasive FX shots of dragons in the shadows and mist yield to predictable action-hero combat and less persuasive FX shots of dragons at close range.
Reign of Fire is modeled on previous big-budget creature features, including Jaws, the Aliens, and the Jurassic Parks (especially the pterodactyl-filled III). Like those films, it pits puny but spirited humans against perfect killing machines. There are no elements of myth, and no sympathy for the dragons, as in fire-breathing-lizard flicks with a sense of tradition or humor. Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka, and Matt Greenberg’s script does have a few wry moments, notably when Quinn and a friend act out a late-20th-century fable for the amusement of the hamlet’s video-deprived kiddies. But the same thing that keeps the movie watchable—its brisk pace—also makes quick work of the intriguing premise and ingratiating tone of the introductory half-hour. The first part of Reign of Fire evokes such oddball alternative-history novels as Keith Roberts’ Pavane, which also offered a vision of Britain’s medieval future. As for the second part, including the utterly flat ending—well, at least it doesn’t dawdle.
The tale of a cosseted sorority sister who’s transformed by her love for a “special” athlete, Pumpkin might have been intended as a provocation. After all, it shares a surprising number of elements with Todd Solondz’s strident Storytelling, including an angry African-American writing instructor, an earnest college student who equates physical handicaps with sensitivity, and the music of Belle and Sebastian. If writer-director Adam Larson Broder and co-director Tony R. Abrams meant to be subversive, though, that goal must have slipped their minds sometime before the final edit.
Pumpkin is named for Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris), who is “challenged” in ways that are never explained. (He talks slowly and uses a wheelchair, although he can walk haltingly.) But the central character is Alpha Omega Pi member Carolyn McDuffy, and the film belongs to an unhappy genre: movies for which Christina Ricci goes blond. Ricci can be edgily compelling in a certain kind of role, but she’s altogether unconvincing in a getting-of-blond-wisdom part that was probably written for Reese Witherspoon—and if not should have been.
In fact, everyone in the film seems miscast: Brenda Blethyn as Pumpkin’s overprotective mother; Sam Ball as Carolyn’s boyfriend, who’s supposed to be a college tennis star even though he looks like a 35-year-old menswear model; and Lolita star Dominique Swain as Carolyn’s roommate, who faces a daunting physical challenge of her own: frizzy hair. None of these characters pack an ounce of persuasion, in part because their world—Southern California in an era identified as “not long ago”—is an unlikely wrinkle in the Hollywood space-time continuum. Early in the movie, Carolyn and her sisters do a hula to “Wipeout,” a sure signifier of the early ’60s, but the soundtrack also includes Mercury Rev and the Gentle Waves. And Carolyn’s Lesley Gore-style flip and prim, Jackie K.-era outfits are oddly updated by her conspicuously erect nipples.
Carolyn is supposed to be a sort of suburban Siddhartha, a pampered aristocrat who never recognized the existence of suffering until she was assigned to coach Pumpkin in the wheelchair-seated discus throw. But if Carolyn’s life has been perfect until encountering Pumpkin—and that irascible writing teacher—then why is she a member of Alpha Omega Pi? Many of the plot’s complications result from that sorority’s being No. 2 on campus, constantly battling to usurp the status of the top-ranked “Tri-Omegas.” And Carolyn is the only blonde in otherwise all-brunette Alpha Omega Pi, whereas the Tri-Omegas are all golden-haired. It seems that there was already trouble in Carolyn’s paradise before Pumpkin disrupted it.
Broder and Abrams’ self-discovery parable teeters between melodrama and farce, with the broad performances tipping the thing toward camp. Yet the directors stage certain moments as if they actually mean them, commanding the music to swell when Carolyn has a breakthrough or takes a stand (“Pumpkin’s not sitting at the back of the bus anymore!”). They uphold the conventions of the scandalous-romance-at-the-big-dance scene and even play the special-games sequence as if they were making an actual sports flick. A scene in which one character has a life-changing mishap, however, is so audaciously implausible that it’s almost Brechtian. Still, even at its most outlandish, Pumpkin only reaches the level of a substandard brunette-
Christina Ricci movie—Pecker, say. And at its most vapid, the movie is only a few Solondzisms away from Freddie Prinze Jr. territory. CP