Never mind nuclear weapons, plagues, or ecological disasters; in the near future of Reign Of Fire, humanity's oldest foe this side of giants and will-o'-the-wisps returns to scorch the earth. Found slumbering in a tunnel underneath London, dragons take to the sky, quickly destroying civilization and even landing on the cover of Time magazine. (Tom Cruise must not have a film opening that week.) The bulk of Fire takes place years after the fall. Having discovered the first dragon as a boy, Christian Bale brings an extra level of commitment to the task of protecting a band of humans living in a countryside castle. Peace prevails in the small community, and civilization continues on, even if, in one of the film's wittier moments, it's limited to reenactments of Star Wars performed against fresco-adorned church walls. But desperation has begun to set in among both the humans, who rely on a small, fragile crop of vegetables, and the dragons, who do little to hide their annoyance at being forced to scrounge for prey. Hope, in the bald-pated form of American soldier Matthew McConaughey, arrives just as Bale's community has begun to bottom out, and before long, the combination of British perseverance and Yankee can-do attitude begins to give the dragons a new challenge. In theory, the concept of 21st-century dragon-slaying ought to be enough to carry the movie, but the theory doesn't stand up to the test. Director Rob Bowman seems at a loss as to what to bring to the film, which, even with its good choice of leads, plods along from one dragon fight to the next, all of them staged to showcase Fire's impressive CGI dragons, but none choreographed with any real flair. A veteran of The X-Files and Star Trek, Bowman knows how to hide budget limitations in mist and shadow, but here, it becomes a bit much. At one point, McConaughey points out that the dragons don't see well at sunset, but in a world caught in such a permanent murk, it's unclear how dragons or humans can tell the difference between midnight and high noon. That's a small failure, however. A much larger one involves Fire's inability to tilt audience sympathy squarely to one side in the match-up of humans versus dragons.

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