Rebel Moon review: Zack Snyder franchise starter falls flat

The first chapter of the science fiction fable is now streaming on Netflix

Rebel Moon stars Sofia Boutella as Kora, a reluctant hero from a peaceful village who is forced to fight for her people. Photo: Netflix
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In a bold attempt to create an epic sci-fi space opera, director Zack Snyder may have overlooked some crucial elements.

Subtlety, nuance and detail are absent from Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire, which is a shame, given that the film’s striking trailer gave us new hope for a science fiction franchise that could rival its obvious biggest influence, Star Wars.

The first chapter of the two-part film, now available on Netflix, is entertaining enough given the nonsensical plot, chaotic pacing, flat characters and cliched dialogue.

Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire

Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Skrein, Michiel Huisman, Charlie Hunnam
Rating: 2/5

The story begins in a small farming village on an independent moon called Veldt. This is, of course, set in a distant galaxy ruled by a militaristic empire named Motherworld, whose royal family was recently assassinated in an attempted coup. The now reigning forces continue to rule the universe through violent conquests and war.

Kora (Sofia Boutella) is one of the farmers on Veldt, with a mysterious past who has found a sense of purpose while living and working off the land.

“I’m a child of war. To truly love and be loved … I don’t know if I’m capable of either,” Kora says in one of the first scenes of the film.

“The very idea of love, of family, was beaten out of me.”

In this early sequence, the audience is presented with the main emotional thread of the story: The real struggle Kora has to face is herself. When life in the village takes a dramatic turn, Kora’s existential journey begins.

This could have been presented in a more compelling way than through expositional dialogue, which is present in almost every scene of the film, exhaustively explaining everything that's happening to the audience instead of leaving room for them to derive meaning through the story itself. Alas.

Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), a brutal military leader from Motherworld, arrives to Veldt, with his loyal troops in tow. Noble demands and threatens the village to sell him their grain, even if it means not having enough to feed themselves.

In retaliation, Kora sets off through the galaxy with a farmer named Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) to gather a band of soldiers who will fight to bring down Noble and his army.

If the premise sounds weak, that's because it is.

Meanwhile, Noble and his military legion are aboard a colossal space vessel named The King’s Gaze, a frightening force that has wiped out whole planets and races. One must ask, why would their leader’s focus be on grain from a small, random village?

To Snyder’s credit, the film delivers visually, if not narratively.

This should come as no surprise given Snyder’s body of work, which includes 300, Watchmen and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He is a director who prioritises contrasting colour and dramatic lighting to create mood while producing grand, theatrical compositions reminiscent of comics and graphic novels to captivate his audience.

While sometimes a little too stylised, the cinematography, special effects and choreographed fight scenes are visually engaging, and do a lot of the world building on their own, particularly giving hints of the galaxy's history and mythology.

This is exactly what we want to see in a space opera – epic scenes in outer space, where advanced technology, warfare and interstellar battles are melodramatic and all-consuming. These elements are well executed, but they need to make sense. Action needs to be anchored, otherwise it's just movement.

There are many points at which it seems Snyder has attempted to do so, but he fails at every turn. In one sequence, Kora and Gunnar travel from one planet to the next to collect their band of outsiders, and she narrates her own history with the Motherworld and her connection to its current leader, Balisarius.

These flashbacks, while visually appealing, are woven into the story in a manner that feels a little blunt and amateur. Information is added, but nothing is gained, a mistake Synder and his co-writers, Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 and 4), Kurt Johnstad (Atomic Blond and 300), keep repeating throughout the film.

Together, this creative team has crafted a set of characters who are interesting only on the surface. The details of how they look, act and dress is part of a larger world that does make one curious to learn more. But as soon as these characters open their mouths, there is nothing there but jargon and hackneyed one-liners.

Things do, thankfully, pick up towards the end, which bodes well for the sequel heading to the platform in spring. There's a powerful plot twist towards the end, which ups the stakes of what the characters are fighting for. This was done, frustratingly enough, without telling us much about the characters themselves, making it hard to grab hold of.

From the aforementioned Star Wars to The Fifth Element, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, Snyder’s influences are obvious.

It’s natural to be inspired by other films or literature. The problem is how you use them. In this case, Synder never manages to take the elements that he admired from other films and mould them to fit his own aesthetic, and by extension, create a solid and distinct world. Instead, the stories and images that shaped him only serve to make his own world look undeveloped in comparison.

Over and over again, the film presents many missed opportunities for audiences to engage on an emotional level with the characters' respective journeys, delivering instead all the basic assumptions of an “epic” space opera. Perhaps it’s a formula that works for many, since the film currently sits at number one on Netflix’s top 10 movie list in the UAE.

But it takes more than beautiful images and expert fight choreography for a film to collate a massive fandom and become a long-lasting cultural staple, which this film is clearly intended for. And this is the film’s ultimate issue.

In its desperation for epic moments, Rebel Moon forgets about the intimate ones, instead delivering microwave popcorn entertainment without much to feel, connect with or remember.

Updated: December 28, 2023, 3:03 AM
Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire

Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Skrein, Michiel Huisman, Charlie Hunnam
Rating: 2/5