Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire (2023)

Creating an original sci-fi/fantasy universe is hard work. It involves bringing to life an entire new universe of characters, worlds, back-stories, rules, conflicts, cultures, and classes. There’s a reason major studios look to scoop already established creative universes rather than build their own from scratch. This is what director Zack Snyder had in mind when he pitched a darker, grittier, more mature Star Wars to Disney, who passed. Over the ensuing decade, Snyder and his collaborators, Shay Hatten and Kurt Johnstad, continued working on their concept, transforming it into an original movie series, resulting in Netflix’s big-budget holiday release, Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire, a clunky title I will not be retyping in full again. Snyder’s original results of the “darker, grittier Star Wars” are rather underwhelming and don’t make me excited for the concluding second movie being released in April. Why go to the trouble of building your own universe if you don’t want to fill in the details about what makes it important or at least even unique? I can see why Snyder would have preferred Rebel Moon as a Star Wars pitch, because they could attach all the established world-building from George Lucas and his creative collaborators as a quick cheat code.

In another galaxy, the imperial Motherworld is the power in the universe. The king and his family have been assassinated, and in the power struggle that follows, several planets have taken up arms to fight for independence. On a distant moon, Kora (Sofia Boutella) is doing her best to live a nondescript life as a farmer, helping to provide for her community and stay out of trouble. Well trouble comes knockin’ anyway with Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) and his fleet looking for resources and powerless villagers to abuse. Kora’s history of violence comes back to her as she fights back against the Motherworld soldiers with cool precision. Her only hope is to gather a team of the most formidable warriors to protect her village from reprisals. Kora and company band together while her mysterious past will come back to haunt her reluctant return to prominence.

For the first thirty to forty minutes of Rebel Moon, I was nodding along and enjoying it well enough, at least enough to start to wonder if the tsunami of negative reviews had been unfairly harsh, and then the rest of the movie went downhill. One of the major problems of this Part One of a story is that it feels like a movie entirely made up of Act Two plotting. Once our hero sets off on her mission, the movie becomes a broken carousel of meeting the next member of the team, seeing them do something impressive as a fighter, getting some info dump about their mediocre tragic backstory, and then we’re off to the next planet to repeat the process. After the fifth time, when a character says, “Anyone else you know?” I thought that the rest of the movie, and the ensuring Part Two, would be nothing but recruiting members until every character in the galaxy had joined these ragtag revolutionaries, like it was all one elaborate practical joke by Snyder. Some part of me may still be watching Rebel Moon, my eyes glazing over while we add the eight hundred and sixty-sixth person who is strong but also shoots guns real good. Then the movie manufactures an ending that isn’t really an ending, merely a pause point, but without any larger revelations or escalations to further our anticipation for Part Two in four months’ time. What good are these handful of warriors going to be defending a village in a sci-fi universe where the bad guys could just nuke the planet from orbit? Find out in April 2024, folks!

The entire 124-minute enterprise feels not just like an incomplete movie but an incomplete idea. This is because the influences are obvious and copious for Snyder. Rebel Moon starts feeling entirely like Star Wars, but then it very much becomes a space opera version of The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. With our humble farmer, our high plains drifter trying to turn their back on an old life of violence, and the recruitment of our noble fighters to ward off the evil bandits coming to harass this small outpost, it’s clearly The Magnificent Seven, except Snyder doesn’t provide us the necessary material to invest in this scrappy team. The characters are all different variations of the same stoic badass archetype, like you took one character mold and simply sliced it into ten little shear pieces. The characters don’t even have the most basic difference you could offer in an action movie, variation in skill and weapons. One lady has laser swords (a.k.a. lens flair makers) but pretty much everyone else is just the same heavy gun fighter. One guy doesn’t even bother to put on a shirt. Some of them are slightly bigger or more slender than others but the whole get-the-gang-together plot only really works if we have interesting characters. If we don’t like the prospective team members, it’s like we’re stuck in an endless job interview with only lousy candidates.

The fact that Rebel Moon is derivative is not in itself damaging. Science fiction is often the sum of its many earlier influences, including Star WarsRebel Moon cannot transcend its many film influences because it fails to reform them into something coherent of its own. There is no internal logic or connection within this new universe. The original world building amounts to a slain royal family, an evil fascist regime, and maybe a magic princess connected to a prophecy of balance, and that’s it. All the flashbacks and expository data dumps fail to create a clearer, larger picture of how this sci-fi universe operates. The inner workings are kept so broad and abstract. We have an imperial evil and assorted good-hearted little guys. The movie begins by introducing a robot clan of knights that are dying out, and even a young Motherworld soldier who seems likely to defect, both opportunities to go into greater character detail and open up this world and its complications. So what does Snyder do? He leaves both behind shortly. Even though we visit a half dozen planets, these alien worlds don’t feel connected, as if Snyder just told concept artists to follow whatever whim they had. They don’t even feel that interesting as places. One of them is desert. One of them has a saloon. One of them is a mining planet. It’s like the worlds have been procedurally generated from a computer for all we learn about them. They’re just glorified painted backdrops that don’t compliment the already shaky world building. They’re too interchangeable for all the impact on the plot and characters and any declining sense of wonder.

Given the open parameters of imagination with inventing your own sci-fi/fantasy universe, I am deeply confused by some of the choices that Snyder makes that visually weigh down this movie in anachronistic acts of self-sabotage. Firstly, the villains are clearly meant to be a one-to-one obvious analog for the Empire in Star Wars, itself an analog for the fascists of World War II, but Lucas decided having them as stand-ins was good enough without literally having them dress in the same style of uniforms as the literal fascists from World War II. You have an interconnected galaxy of future alien cultures and the bad guys dress like they stepped out of The Man in the High Castle. It’s too familiar while being too specific, and the fact that it’s also completely transparent with its iconic source references is yet another failure of imagination and subtext. I just accepted that the Space Nazis were going to look like literal Nazis, but what broke my brain was the costuming of Skrein’s big baddie in the second half of the movie. At some point he changes into a white dress shirt with a long thin black tie and all I could think about was that our space opera villain looks like one of those door-to-door Mormon missionaries (“Hello, have you heard the Good Word of [whatever Snyder is calling The Force in this universe]?”). Every scene with this outfit ripped me out of the movie; it was like someone had photo-shopped a character from a different movie. It certainly didn’t make the devious character of Atticus Noble more threatening or even interesting. I view this entire creative decision as a microcosm for Rebel Moon: a confused fusion of the literal, the derivative, and the dissonant.

Snyder is still a premiere visual stylist so even at its worst Rebel Moon can still be an arresting watch. He’s one of the best at realizing the awe of selecting the right combination of images, a man who creates living comic book splash pages. I realized midway through Rebel Moon why the action just wasn’t as exciting for me. There’s a decided lack of weight. It’s not just that scenes don’t feel well choreographed or developed to make use of geography, mini-goals, and organic complications, the hallmarks of great action, it’s that too little feels concrete. It feels too phony. I’m not condemning the special effects, which are mostly fine. The action amounts to Character A shoots at Bad Guy and Character B shoots at Other Bad Guy, maybe behind some cover. There’s only one sequence that brings in specifics to its action, with the challenge of defeating a rotating turret gun pinning the team down from escape. That sequence established a specific obstacle and stakes. It worked, and it presented one of the only challenges that wasn’t immediately overcome by our heroes.

The Snyder action signature of slow-mo ramps has long ago entered into self-parody territory (I’m convinced a full hour of his four-hour Justice League cut was slow motion), so its use has to be even more self-aware here, especially in quizzical contexts. There are moments where it accentuates the visceral appeal of the vivid imagery, like a man leaping atop the back of a flying griffin, akin to an 80s metal album cover come to life. Then there are other times that just leave you questioning why Snyder decided to slow things down… for this? One such example is where a spaceship enters the atmosphere in the first twenty minutes, and a character drops their seeds in alarm, and those seeds falling are detailed in loving slow motion. Why show a character’s face to impart an emotion when you can instead see things falling onto the ground so dramatically?

The actors are given little to do other than strike poses and attitudes, and for that they all do a fine job of making themselves available for stills and posters and trailers. Boutella (The Mummy) is good at being a stoic badass. I just wish there was something memorable for her to do or make use of her athleticism. The best actor in the movie is Skrein (Deadpool) who really relishes being a smarmy villain. He’s not an interesting bad guy but Skrein at least makes him worth watching even when he’s in the most ridiculous outfit and awful Hitler youth haircut. There’s also Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as a widowed spider-woman creature. So there’s that. Cleopatra Coleman (Dopesick), who plays one half of a revolutionary set of siblings along with Ray Fisher, sounds remarkably like Jennifer Garner. Close your eyes when she’s speaking, dear reader, and test for yourself. I was most interested in Anthony Hopkins as the voice of our malfunctioning android (literally named “Jimmy the Robot”) operating on mysterious programming that hints at something larger in place relating to perhaps the princess being alive. Fun fact: Rebel Moon features both actors who played the role of Daario on Game of Thrones (Skrien and Michiel Husiman).

Even with all the money at Netflix’s mighty disposal, Rebel Moon can’t make up for its paltry imagination and thus feels like an empty enterprise. I’m reminded of 2011’s Sucker Punch, the last time Snyder was left completely to his own devices. I wrote back then, “Expect nothing more than top-of-the-line eye candy. Expect nothing to make sense. Expect nothing to really matter. In fact, go in expecting nothing but a two-hour ogling session, because that’s the aim of the film. Look at all those shiny things and pretty ladies, gentlemen.” That assessment seems fitting for Rebel Moon as well, a movie that can’t be bothered to provide compelling characters, drama, or world-building to invest in over two to four hours, once you consider the approaching Part Two. I wish this movie had a more distinct vision and sense of humor, something akin to Luc Besson’s lively Fifth Element, but fun is not allowed in the Zack Snyder universe, so everything must be grim, because grim means mature, and mature means automatically better, right? Rebel Moon is a space opera where you’ll prefer the void.

Nate’s Grade: C-

This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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