‘Rebel Moon’ Review: An Epic Trilogy Begins With An Epic Blunder

The elevator pitch for 'Rebel Moon' could not more simple: It’s 'Seven Samurai' meets 'Dune.' But director Zach Snyder has put the cart before the horse, promising a sprawling galaxy of stories while failing to make the first one functional in its own right.

Charlie Hunnam, Michiel Huisman, Sofia Boutella, Staz Nair, and Djimon Hounsou (from left) in Rebel Moon. Courtesy of Netflix

I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Zack Snyder. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call him a good director, but he is an interesting one, and in the world of big budget genre blockbusters, those are in short supply. Snyder has an undeniable style, defined by a love of slow motion violence, golden hour photography, and godlike heroes with dirt and blood under their nails. As video essayist Patrick Willems explored to great comic effect in 2022, Zack Snyder’s aesthetic is extrapolated almost entirely from Frank Frazetta paintings and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Above all else, Snyder aspires to radness, an aim that he pursues with a charming sincerity. For the past decade, however, that sincerity has been undercut by the cynical business of franchise-building, and the scale of his stories has steadily outgrown audience’s patience for them. His latest effort is a space fantasy epic which he hopes will become “a massive IP and a universe to be built out.” But, like so many aspiring myth-makers, Snyder has put the cart before the horse, promising a sprawling galaxy of stories while failing to make the first one functional in its own right. Not only is Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire a pale imitation of the George Lucas and Akira Kurosawa films that inspired it, but it’s a structurally unsound mess that fails to inspire any excitement for its planned second half, let alone the trilogy that’s supposed to follow. It’s a blunder of Hobbit proportions. 

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REBEL MOON — PART ONE: A CHILD OF FIRE (1/4 stars)
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Shay Hatten
Starring: Sofia Boutella, Charlie Hunnam, Michiel Huisman, Djimon Hounsou, Doona Bae, Ray Fisher, Cleopatra Coleman, Jena Malone, Ed Skrein, Fra Fee, Anthony Hopkins
Running time: 133 mins.


The elevator pitch for Rebel Moon could not be simpler: It’s Seven Samurai meets Dune — which is to say, Star Wars minus the Flash Gordon whimsy. Sofia Boutella stars as Kora, a former elite soldier of the fascistic Motherworld who has chosen a quiet life on the farming planet of Veldt. But when the sinister Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) demands that her village hand over nearly their entire harvest to feed his troops, Kora and fellow farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman, who bears a startling resemblance to Snyder himself) take to space and assemble a group of warriors to repel the invaders. All the stock characters are here: We’ve got a roguish thief (Charlie Hunnam), a kind-hearted, bare-chested beastmaster (Staz Nair), an honorable swordswoman (Bae Doona), a disgraced general (Djimon Hounsou), and a battle-hardened but idealistic revolutionary (Ray Fisher).

Sofia Boutella in Rebel Moon. Clay Enos/Netflix

The cast functions like the party in a bad video game RPG: Each member of the team gets their own little episode in which to establish their methods and motivations, but once they’ve been “unlocked,” their stories are essentially over. They barely interact with each other or the main character, and we learn almost nothing new about them after they debut. Some of them get action beats in the finale, but not all of them, as somehow Djimon Hounsou’s General Titus manages to make it to the end of the film without ever doing anything at all. Perhaps his character’s contributions to the story are all in next year’s Part Two: Scargiver, or awaiting release in the forthcoming three-hour, R-rated Director’s Cut.

The galaxy of Rebel Moon, which is presumably the product that’s being advertised here, is mostly boring and derivative. The story takes Kora and company to planet after planet, never staying long enough for any of them to develop an identity beyond “farming planet, mining planet, trading post.” There’s a variety of practically-achieved humanoid aliens, but only a few of their designs are distinctive or memorable, and none of them belong to principal characters. The soldiers of the villainous Motherworld are brutal, cartoonishly evil bullies in Roman-inspired armor and Nazi-ish officer’s uniforms, while the resistance against them look like futuristic Braveheart cosplayers (though Ray Fisher and Cleopatra Coleman both look pretty cool wearing it). There are a handful of interesting non-human aliens that make brief appearances and whose visual weirdness is allowed to speak for itself, but these are pops of imagination in a sea of blandness. Kora’s flashbacks to wartime offer the occasional eye-catching battlefield tableau, but this is little more than an opportunity to admire some quality concept art. Most damning of all, while the characters dart between planets on a spaceship, none of the action takes place in space, which is like having a pirate adventure where nothing happens at sea.

Doona Bae in Rebel Moon. Courtesy of Netflix

The only thing cutting through the blandness is Zack Snyder’s signature look, which is a far cry from the crisp, evenly-lit, smartphone-friendly Netflix house style. Snyder likes a shallow depth of field, a softening of focus on the edge of the frame, and a whole lot of slow motion, but he employs these devices so liberally that they lose any meaning. While speed ramping gives the action of Rebel Moon some flavor, most of the battle sequences aren’t exciting, nor are Snyder’s camera placements. Snyder’s less savory narrative signatures, such as a preference for lore over story and a habit of using sexual violence to heighten the stakes, are also on embarrassing display here.

But what’s most frustrating about Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire is its awkward non-ending. This year’s seen more than its share of “half-movies,” but despite ending on cliffhangers, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning each have a third act and a grand finale that sets up the next chapter. A Child of Fire closes with a sizable action sequence, but action alone doesn’t make a climax. It’s not surprising that the confrontation promised at the start of the film must be reserved for Part Two, but when the credits roll on Part One, nothing has been accomplished beyond a lot of exposition. Aside from Kora and Gunnar’s initial refusal of the call to action, none of the characters have undergone any sort of change. There’s been 133 minutes of plot, background, and action, and yet nothing has happened. Perhaps the two combined parts (in their full, bloody, uncut forms) will miraculously cohere into a watchable film. But as it stands, Rebel Moon has suffered a complete failure to launch.


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

 

‘Rebel Moon’ Review: An Epic Trilogy Begins With An Epic Blunder