Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire (2023)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Shay Hatten
Starring: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Skrein, Michiel Huisman, Doona Bae, Ray Fisher, Charlie Hunnam, Staz Nair, Fra Fee, Cleopatra Coleman, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Carey Elwes, Corey Stoll, Jenna Malone, Anthony Hopkins
Rebel Moon started life as Zack Snyder’s pitch to Lucasfilm for a new Star Wars movie. But, when that didn’t pan out, he re-tooled it, changed some names, and now it has come to Netflix just in time for audiences to remember that they too have also seen Seven Samurai, and The Magnificent Seven, and A Bug’s Life, and that episode of ‘The Clone Wars’, and that episode of ‘The Mandalorian’.
Anthony Hopkins, in his best sci-fi/fantasy exposition dump voice, sets out the stakes: an evil empire known as the Motherworld controls the galaxy after staging a coup against the royal family; there is a prophecy involving a princess with supernatural gifts; there is a band of rebels engaged in guerrilla warfare against Imperium military forces. Everything comes to a head over a resource rich backwater world, Veldt, where instead of surrendering their excess grain supplies to their oppressors, village leaders decide to recruit mercenary warriors to make a stand against impossible odds. It’s the first half of the story we know from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and all the versions that followed reimagined as a massively-scaled space opera.
There are some very strange stylistic choices here, even from the film’s opening shots. Having our main hero, soldier-turned farmer Kora (Sofia Boutella), framed against a sunset or a vivid celestial sky can be a magical and symbolically impactful image (just think of Luke Skywalker watching twin setting suns), but that doesn’t work when the joins between the physical set and the CG backdrop are so clear to see.
If you’re going to make one of your fantasy communities basically space Vikings using outdated technology in an attempt to emphasise how against the odds they are, why have some good culturally-appropriate actors on one hand (A White, White Day‘s Ingvar Sigurdsson) and then get Cory Stoll wearing a bad fake beard and an even worse vaguely Scandinavian accent? Speaking of accents, whose bright idea was it to give Charlie Hunnam’s totally-not-Han Solo scoundrel character Kai a wavering Belfast accent? Especially when he has to torture the vowels of lines like “Setting course for Pollux”. Soon after, Ed Skrein turns up as Admiral Noble, a posh boy in a Gestapo costume, in case we weren’t getting the metaphor about what the good and bad guys are supposed to sound like, and proceeds to give a sneery speech that begins with “The rebels we seek…”.
At around the halfway point, our unlikely gang go to a Blade Runner-y industrial planet, at which point the film picks up noticeably because Doona Bae’s formidable character Nemesis is recruited and has a not-lightsaber fight with a big spider lady. Cool scene, neat visuals. They then immediately fly off to recruit Djimon Hounsou’s dishevelled ex-General Titus and the other well-worn archetypes (we have the ex-soldier with guilt and a unique set of skills, the leader fallen on hard times, the near-silent assassin, the obvious traitor…) before the baddies converge for a final scrap.
It has one thing in common with the original Star Wars: as hard as the cast commit, they can’t do anything about a script that sounds like it was Google translated into another language and then back to English. As Harrison Ford famously said about George Lucas’ dialogue, “You can type this shit, you can’t say it”.
The film is so derivative and not even subtle about it. You’d better believe there’s an alien cantina scene where a hooded secret warrior makes an example of a thug who underestimates them. Quelle surprise! The main physically formidable bad guy who has been giving our heroes the run around for two hours confers with his powerful shadowy master who’s really pulling the strings and seems to have evil electric powers.
The more extreme violence has so obviously, and clumsily, been cut around for this initial release, which is weird because this still has a 15 certification in the UK. We know exactly how these bodies are being hacked to bits, but the the moment we’d actually see blood is obscured by the frame. Are we really at such a cynical, artistically bereft point in making movies that you need to cut your film to the bone for mass appeal on the day you drop on streaming only to add it back in for an extended cut for the gorehounds further down the line? Either your story is a violent one or it isn’t, you’re using it as part of your storytelling arsenal or you’re not. Snyder even sets up a battle in a gladiatorial arena, though we don’t actually get to go inside, only seeing pulverised bodies being dragged out of it. Maybe that’s for Part Two, or Part One: “Bigger, Longer and Uncut”.
There are a couple of unique images here, like the creepy robot scorpion contraption that packs away the terrified targets of bounty hunters like luggage and the kind-of pervy scene in which Admiral Noble gets felt up by some alien leeches in his free time. Snyder still does a certain kind of polished and kinetic action extremely well, with both the shoot-outs and close-quarters brawls being fairly exciting to witness, all bumped up another notch by a propulsive score from Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road). Pretty much every other distinct image and sound is borrowed from another better movie though, with everything from Harry Potter to Avatar plundered.
The worst thing about Rebel Moon is that it is unmemorable and it completely fails to forge an identity of its own. You can reference your favourite movies and wear your genre influences proudly, but you have to mark yourself out and bring something new to the table. This new universe doesn’t draw you in or make you care about any of the characters within it, so all you’re left with is empty spectacle and space to add the gore back in later. Zack Snyder has got a lot of work to do to get us all back on side for Part Two in a few months.
Recommended for you: Zack Snyder Movies Ranked