You may not realize it, but Zack Snyder—the director behind visually stunning spectacles like 300 and Watchmen—originally dreamed up his latest sci-fi saga Rebel Moon as a Star Wars film. After getting turned down by Lucasfilm years back, he’s finally brought his sprawling space opera to life as a two-part Netflix event.
The first installment, Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire, kicks off the story of a ruthless totalitarian regime known as the Motherworld, which rules over various colonies across the galaxy with an iron fist. When one peaceful farming moon draws the ire of the Motherworld’s vicious Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), a mysterious warrior named Kora (Sofia Boutella) bands together a ragtag crew of galactic outsiders to fight back against Noble’s forces.
With striking visuals and thrilling action sequences, Snyder aims to build an expansive new cinematic world that promises to rival the scope of Star Wars. But does Rebel Moon manage to escape from Lucas’ shadow and chart its own compelling course? As a fan of sci-fi blockbusters, I was eager to see if Snyder could stick the landing on this enormously ambitious passion project of his. Read on for my take…
A Feast for the Eyes, Not Much Else
You can always count on Snyder to deliver striking imagery dripping with atmosphere. Right from the opening shot gliding over a gloomy spacescape, Rebel Moon is visually arresting, awash in Snyder’s signature desaturated filters and smoky hazes. He makes excellent use of slow motion to turn the action into artistic tableaus. An early scene with Sofia Boutella’s Kora sliding across the ground, slicing up enemies as dust and debris float dreamily around her, is undeniably gorgeous.
The CGI alien worlds, while imaginative, often feel too computer-generated though. The green-screen backdrops come across as rather flat and fake, lacking the tactile quality of practical sets. Still, the creature design boasts some delightfully weird and creative elements, like the tentacled bathing alien and spider-esque villainess. These bring an original spin to Rebel Moon’s otherwise derivative narrative.
When it comes to choreography however, the action left me wanting more. Snyder has crafted some truly spectacular cinematic battles before, but here many of the fight scenes feel surprisingly stilted. The editing chops up the flow, making it hard to appreciate the stunt work. And the frame rate seems to drop in several of the busier CGI-heavy moments, giving certain shots an ugly blurriness.
I wish Snyder injected the images with a bit more verve and imagination too. As it stands, the grey-brown aesthetic becomes one note, almost depressingly dour after a while. The finale’s fiery planetside clash buckles under the weight of dreary CGI overload. Still, on a pure visual level, Rebel Moon remains a cornucopia of sensational sights to dazzle the eyes, even as it leaves the brain checking out.
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Familiar Tales from A Far Away Galaxy
It doesn’t take long watching Rebel Moon to realize you’ve seen this story before in countless sci-fi epics. The set-up will instantly evoke Star Wars: a malevolent empire subjugates freedom-loving rebels across the galaxy. Snyder also borrows heavily from legends like Dune, Blade Runner and The Matrix to stitch together his sprawling space saga.
We get bombarded in the opening minutes with terminology about the shadowy Motherworld and its various byzantine political factions. But none of it really lands or draws you into the tapestry Snyder is attempting to weave. There’s an abundance of mythical lore about fallen kings, ancient rituals and magical bloodlines. However the world-building proves too convoluted for its own good.
What matters is that the central villain, Ed Skrein’s scowling Admiral Noble, leads his fleet from planet to planet stripping resources to fuel the Motherworld’s war machine. When he comes to harvest a small agricultural moon called Veldt, it sparks our hero Kora into gathering a dirty half-dozen of ragtag misfits to fight off his impending invasion.
Fresh this is not. We’ve seen the “getting the team together” plot device a million times before. And beyond looking cool slinging axes and one-liners, Kora herself remains thinly sketched. Little in way of personality or meaningful backstory emerges to invest us in her crusade. The same goes for her crew of clichéd stock warriors like Charlie Hunnam’s dashing smuggler. They get flashy intro scenes but serve functional roles in what amounts to a live-action RPG game more than a layered drama.
At nearly 2 and a half hours, Rebel Moon takes its sweet time moving pieces into place for the inevitable final stand of farmers against imperial troopers. But with the script struggling to breathe life into this stale good versus evil dynamic, our emotional investment never ignites. A concluding twist straight out of Empire Strikes Back hints at a more complex morality to come. But this first installment keeps the story safely within well-trodden territory. While visually spectacular, narratively Rebel Moon remains decidedly earthbound.
Solid Performances Wasted
Sofia Boutella has proven her action chops in films like Atomic Blonde. And she brings an alluring mix of ferocity and vulnerability to the lead role of Kora. Her kinetic fight style blends beautifully with Snyder’s signature slo-mo cinematography. But the script gives her painfully little to sink her teeth into dramatically. We get the traumatic backstory download but very little sense of what’s driving her beyond generic redemption. Still, Boutella manages to inject flashes of soul into the thinly written heroine.
The supporting cast likewise boasts pedigree but remains criminally underused. Charlie Hunnam brings his roguish charm to ace pilot Kai, while Doona Bae makes for a total badass as fearsome swordswoman Nemesis. Snyder rounds up reliable hands like Djimon Hounsou and a grizzled Stellan Skarsgård to fill out rebel command. But when given poorly etched caricatures spouting exposition, even talented thespians struggle to leave a mark.
And oh man, does this script not have an ear for dialogue. The portentous tone becomes almost comical at times. When Kora delivers lines like “Kindness is a virtue worth dying for,” it elicits chuckles not cheers. Even the baddies sound silly growling clunkers like “I’ll turn her from a farm girl into a whore!” Seriously, did no one suggest punch-ups to these chestnuts?
A little comic relief or sharp-tongued banter would have gone a long way in puncturing the painfully puffed-up proceedings. But Snyder seemingly forgot that crackling dialogue can be as vital as spectacular visuals in delivering rousing blockbuster action. Here the emotional beats fall resoundingly flat, leaving a terrific ensemble without a lifeline. Maybe Part Two will finally give them some scenery worth chewing on.
Big Ideas Get Lost in Space
Like most sci-fi tales set in distant galaxies, Rebel Moon gestures at resonant themes around totalitarianism, colonialism, environmentalism. But any substantive commentary gets lost in the jumble of campy characters and chaotic world-building.
When facing an enemy called the Motherworld, it’s hard not to view the story through a gendered lens. Yet the film ignores opportunities to develop its warrior women beyond genre archetypes. The script lazily relies on sexual assault as a plot device to catalyze Kora’s journey, playing into troubling Hollywood tropes.
Questions around race, gender and class hierarchies likewise go unexamined. The only people of color play sidekick roles with minimal dialogue. And there’s a weird Eurocentrism in the casting that sees intergalactic communities looking suspiciously white and Anglo-Saxon.
More than meaningful allegory, Rebel Moon seems designed primarily as IP – a launchpad for Snyder’s planned multi-platform universe spanning graphic novels, video games and supplemental media. The Avengers-style rollout points to Netflix harboring grand franchise ambitions, banking on Rebel Moon to fill the Star Wars-shaped hole in their library.
Yet on the evidence of this first installment, I’m skeptical there’s enough here narratively to sustain an enduring saga. Beyond dazzling visuals, these paper-thin characters lack the substance to anchor our emotions across endless sequels. Call me old fashioned, but resonant storytelling still outshines CGI wizardry when it comes to cinematic myth-making. On that front, Rebel Moon sadly comes up short.
A Visual Feast, But I’m Still Hungry
In many ways, Rebel Moon represents Zack Snyder operating at the height of his powers. The images possess an operatic grandeur, saturated with emotion and atmosphere. As a showcase for stunning CGI vistas and slow-mo ultra violence, the film delivers enough to sate genre fans. But for those craving well-rounded characters and narrative originality, it makes for decidedly underwhelming fare.
There’s an admirable ambition to the world-building, even if much of it blurs into an incoherent jumble. And credit Snyder for populating his interstellar landscape with creativity and weird wonders aplenty. Yet too often Rebel Moon feels like a greatest hits compilation of iconic sci-fi movies rather than its own beast. The derivative plot strands and archetypal heroes fail to forge an identity distinct enough to resonate or linger.
I kept waiting for the storytelling to shift into higher gear or the lead performances to magnetize our emotions. But as Part One of an intended two-part saga, this installment gets mired in dreary place-setting for much of its elongated runtime. That concluding Empire homage does effectively whet the appetite for more complex characterization and politically-charged plotting next time around. But on basis of this initial outing, I’m less convinced than Netflix that Snyder has birthed a franchise with craft and ideas bold enough to light up the pop culture sky.
Visually intoxicating but narratively anaemic, Rebel Moon ultimately left me craving more flavor, depth and originality from Snyder’s ambitious auteur plate.
Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire
A visual masterclass undermined by derivative storytelling, Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire is a gorgeous yet shallow sci-fi saga that never realizes its full potential.
- Visually spectacular cinematography and VFX
- Strong lead performance from Sofia Boutella
- Creative world-building and creature design
- Epic scope and ambitious franchise plans
- Derivative, patchwork plot
- Underdeveloped characters
- Clunky dialogue
- Messy editing and pacing