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Rebel Moon review: A glum Star Wars ripoff from Zack Snyder

Sofia Boutella strikes a cool pose with a stick against a pretty landscape in a still from Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire.
Rebel Moon review: A glum Star Wars ripoff from Zack Snyder
“Rebel Moon – Part One is a pastiche leeched of joy, a would-be Star Wars movie depressed by Snyder’s delusions of grandeur.”
  • Some striking imagery
  • Some cool sci-fi design
  • Hey, if it gets people to watch Seven Samurai...
  • Generic characters
  • No ending
  • Blatantly just a Star Wars ripoff

Kal-El help us, Zack Snyder believes in himself. Whatever one thinks of his dour, steroidal opuses — the rock-chord operas he pulls from splash panels or his own imagination — the director has the stubborn perseverance of a true artist. Did he give up on his vision when Warner Bros. essentially wrested Justice League away from him? No, he convinced the studio to release a mea culpa, less a director’s cut than a costly rebuke to the creative decisions of those who funded it. Not even the outright cancellation of a project is enough to stop him, apparently: Told that Lucasfilm would not, on second thought, be inviting him to play in its sandbox, Snyder reached for a shovel anyway.

As its mouthful of a title reveals, Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire is not, technically speaking, a “Star Wars story.” But it was intended to be one: Snyder originally pitched it as “Seven Samurai with Jedis,” pulling into more explicit focus Akira Kurosawa’s influence on the franchise. Would that be in the patchwork spirit of George Lucas or merely redundant? Either way, Snyder’s off-brand realization of the idea defiantly broadcasts its IP origins with every droid, stormtrooper, and glowing fire sword never referred to as a lightsaber for copyright reasons. It’s a total mockbuster: Star Wars but cheaper and — given the man responsible — grimmer and grayer, too.

At least Snyder resists the urge to scroll the opening exposition down the screen, opting instead for solemn voice-over narration, delivered under an ominous Junkie XL score that’s a far cry from the triumphant strains of John Williams. This galaxy far, far away is a feudal star system known as the Motherworld (not to be confused with Motherboxes), caught in the iron grip of an imperial government after the assassination of the king. Parsecs from the seat of power sits a quaint lunar colony, a land of simple but horny farmers introduced via a striking establishing shot that fills the horizon with the loom of a ringed planet. The image recalls both the Old West desert frontier of Tatooine and the paperback covers of sci-fi novels Lucas has probably read.

Doona Bae stands in a group of fellow heroes in a still from Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire.
Doona Bae in Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire Netflix / Netflix

Early into this Netflix time-suck, a warship touches down, depositing a squad of space Nazis — a Third Reich in regalia, haircut, and genocidal impulse. They’re led by Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), a smirking Gestapo with a real Richard Spencer look and punchability; if his name telegraphs a primitive irony (let’s just say you could not imagine him played by Gregory Peck), his falsely civil ramping up to murder is vintage Christoph Waltz. One of the more fascinating contradictions of Snyder’s work is the special delight he takes in obliterating fascist bullies, while also adopting a style of rather Riefenstahlian bombast.

Commanded to prepare nearly its entire seasonal harvest for the Empire Imperium, the community instead ends up killing the rapist underlings left to supervise — the movie’s first set-piece of righteous, speed-ramped carnage, a Snyder specialty. Kora (Sofia Boutella), a former royal guard laying low in the colony after going rogue, sets out with her casual farmboy lover (Michiel Huisman) to assemble a cavalry of reinforcements. Building the team is a reliably entertaining aspect of any Seven Samurai gloss, and there’s the superficial impression of fun in this episodic stretch, even as Snyder treats it as a license to cherry-pick images and ideas from a library of other blockbusters, including Avatar, Mad Max: Fury Road, Dune, and even Gladiator.

Derivative can be okay. The problem with Rebel Moon is that it’s a pastiche leeched of joy, a Star Wars depressed by Snyder’s delusions of grandeur. There’s no range of personalities, no spunky innocent of the Luke variety, or sardonic rogue of the Han stock. Every one of the recruited warriors — an ensemble filled out by the overqualified, under-utilized likes of Doona Bae, Djimon Hounsou, Staz Nair, Ray Fisher, and more — is a Snyderian strong and silent type, an archetypal badass. Even the apparent Toshiro Mifune figure, a mercenary played by Charlie Hunnam, turns out to be less playful than he first appears. In Rebel Moon, the characters have much less dimension than the spare elements of world-building, like a parasitic puppeteer that shows up during the obligatory cantina pit stop or the spindly, robotic capture devices deployed by the bad guys.

In both a micro and a macro sense, Rebel Moon moves like vinyl slowed by turntable debris. It takes an interminable 45 minutes at least even to set Boutella’s Furiosa-like fugitive on her way. Is the agonizingly deliberate pace a way to assure that this story will spill into multiple chapters, or is the bifurcation a byproduct of Snyder’s indulgent anti-efficiency, his apparent inability to do genre at traditional feature-length anymore? The man certainly loves to screech action to a crawl. At times, his famed ultra-slow-motion takes on the unmotivated quality of a video setting toggling on and off at random. Must we see villagers toss rice at the velocity of the Flash entering the speed force?

A melancholy droid watches the sunset in a still from Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire.
A melancholy droid in Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire Netflix / Netflix

Snyder thinks in tableau, perhaps especially since he started serving as his own director of photography. Like most of his work, Rebel Moon has moments of painterly beauty, indebted to the graphic novels he sometimes adapts and the art of ’70s rock albums he presumably spins while conceiving his projects. The One Perfect Shot crowd may well drink up some of the hero-pose, sprawling-alien-planet imagery, particularly on 70mm; Snyder gets a lot of mythic mileage out of placing his characters (including a melancholy, mechanical ronin voiced by Anthony Hopkins, who deserved more screen time) against brilliant vistas. Nearly every shot of the movie could probably function as an enticing Netflix thumbnail or a variant cover for the comic-book adaptation.

But no emotional vibrancy or even variation lurks behind the visual grandiosity of this material. Rebel Moon only comes to life when the heroes are seized by wrath and killing in style; when one of them informs another that there’s “a difference between justice and revenge,” you have to wonder if Snyder knows or cares what that difference is. For all that he shaped the last decade of DC movies, he’s always seemed more like one of the Image Comics defectors — a first-rate illustrator and second-rate storyteller obsessed with edginess and rippling masculinity. Like a Rob Liefeld of the big screen, Snyder knows how to make characters look cool but maybe not how to imbue them with soul.

And by splitting his newest epic in half, the filmmaker fails to even deliver on the promise of his original pitch; the movie just kind of stops instead of ending, demanding a few more months of Netflix subscription fees before we get to see the presumed defense of the colony, the Kurosawa-does-RogueOne payoff. Rebel Moon, which comes with the promise of its own future #SynderCut (why not just deliver that from the start?), is already being billed as the beginning of a new multimedia franchise… which seems presumptuous, frankly. The film is proof that Snyder still has the drive to get his vision up on screen, Disney’s authorization be damned. But it also suggests that what’s really twinkling in his eye is another monument to his own cult of personality: a brand new SnyderVerse built atop the rubble of earlier, better science fiction.

Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire is now playing in select theaters; it begins streaming on Netflix on Thursday, December 21. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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