Zack Snyder is a very talented cinematographer who is also probably one of Hollywood’s best pitch men, and has built a career out of slow-motion action scenes, grimdark style, and prominent needle drops. Now in a partnership with Netflix, he has finally made a story he initially pitched as “Star Wars for grownups”, then reworked into an “original” space epic called Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire.
I put original in quotes because Rebel Moon is still very much a Star War at heart, along with a dash of Dune, Avatar, and, somewhat strangely because it’s rarely talked about in the same breath as those stories, Firefly. It’s incredibly derivative to the point of mind-numbing boredom, with molasses slow action, grim performances, and the worst of all Snyder’s impulses coalescing in a bummer of a film.
In some ways, Rebel Moon feels like Snyder pushing back on his critics for his bleak “no heroes here” worldview. The best thing about Rebel Moon is actually the moral of the story—that kindness is worth defending in and of itself. Snyder developed the story and co-wrote the script with John Wick alums Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten, and the smartest narrative decision they collectively make is this meaning behind all the action. Because the rest of the film is a baffling collection of decisions, from choosing to shoot EVERY action sequence with slo-mo—Snyder acts as his own cinematographer—which kills the pace and very quickly sucks the life out of what were probably exciting fight scenes to perform in real time, to the decision that the ensemble cast be such a collection of joyless charisma sucks.
Sofia Boutella stars as the central character, Kora, a grim young woman who buries her hands in the dirt and inhales deeply of the earth’s bounty, so that you know she is a world-weary survivor looking for a place to put down roots. Boutella is a charismatic performer who can make a meal of a badly written part (see also: 2017’s The Mummy), but here her charm is wholly absent. Her dour performance weighs down the film as she is carrying the narrative, and the whole film clonks along like Kora’s burdened steps.
Similarly, Djimon Hounsou and Bae Doona, also naturally charismatic performers, are left stranded with little to do. Like Star Wars before it, Rebel Moon follows the template of Seven Samurai and is basically just a “gathering the troops” story after an evil space empire dressed like Nazis threatens the tranquility of a village of space farmers dressed like hick Vikings. The production design and art direction of Rebel Moon are, at least, good, though if the last decade of New New Star Wars has done anything, it’s inure us to good space/sci-fi design. We’re used to seeing this! It is not inherently special! And thus, it is not enough to carry Rebel Moon, just as it wasn’t enough to carry Jupiter Ascending before it.
Frankly, I wish Rebel Moon was bad in the same interesting way as Jupiter Ascending, but that film, wacky as it is, at least has some fun original ideas with potential. Rebel Moon is just a collection of tropes, from the battle-scarred warrior seeking redemption to the good farmer who loves the heroine, to the mostly silent badass swordfighter—Bae Doona does look cool as a knock-off Jedi—to the rapscallion smuggler who comes to the aid of the heroes. Charlie Hunnam plays Kai, a real Han Solo type, and is the only person in the film who finds a way to make his character engaging, maybe because he’s just doing “Irish Han Solo”. The most interesting character is a robot voiced by Anthony Hopkins, the last of a class of mechanized soldiers, who gives himself a makeover during his off-screen time so that he looks like some kind of robot horned god by the end. Interesting! Maybe we should have been watching that guy’s journey this whole time? He is more inherently intriguing and is given more depth in his introduction scene than any other character in the film, including Kora.
There is a ton of world building in Rebel Moon, and some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but the gist is that the “Imperium” has taken over after the king (played by Carey Elwes in flashbacks) and his family, including his probably magical daughter, have been killed. Kora is on the run from the Imperium, and Michiel Huisman plays the hot farmer who falls for her on the Viking planet. I will say this for Rebel Moon, Zack Snyder’s casting remains impeccable (aided by casting director Kristy Carlson), and everyone is super hot. Just a ridiculously attractive collection of people here, something for everyone, the eye candy is A++. Also to Rebel Moon’s credit, Kora is explicitly NOT the presumed-dead princess, which would have been a huge eyeroll if she were, so good on Snyder & Co. for avoiding that narrative trap.
But the story just drags, for a movie that runs a not-outrageous 135 minutes, it feels like to goes on so much longer. The pacing is awful, and the slow pace only compounds the problem of how dour the film is overall. Rebel Moon is crying out for some pep, but it is almost pathologically resistant to being a good time. This should be the film that showcases Zack Snyder’s sensibilities as an artist and storyteller without the interference of a studio, as he is working with Netflix, which is untethered from traditional box office success, but Rebel Moon feels like watered-down Snyder, like he’s so busy cribbing from Seven Samurai and Star Wars and Dune, he forgot to inject anything of himself into the proceedings, except for the excessive use of slo-mo.
There is supposedly an R-rated, extended director’s cut of Rebel Moon coming, but the existing cut already feels so interminably long I cannot imagine sitting through this again, but longer, never mind the negative desire I now have to see the sequel, Rebel Moon: Part Two – The Scargiver. For all that it’s billed as rooted in the idea of “grownup Star Wars”, nothing in Rebel Moon feels more “grownup” than Rogue One and, especially, Andor, the most grownup entries into the Star Wars canon.
I guess adding a sex scene and more blood into the film makes it “grownup”, but that’s a shallow definition, those things are window dressing to stories about complicated people making complicated choices. And on that level, no, Rebel Moon is not giving more than Andor. It’s not even giving more than Firefly! Let alone Dune, or any of its other (obvious) inspirations. Rebel Moon is a copy of a copy, dull and dreadfully boring, with nothing of its own to say, and even Zack Snyder’s most over-the-top impulses seem to have abandoned him and this utterly charmless film.
Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.