‘Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire’ Review: Snyder Beyond the Stars

User Rating: 4

For better or worse, Rebel Moon is the “Most” Zack Snyder you can get. I say that while only having seen part one of this two-part story and the hacked-up PG-13 cut of a film that clearly aimed for an R-rating, and it still feels like this is a maximalist vision of the “visionary” filmmaker. As his devoted followers have shown, there’s no doubt of an appeal for some when it comes to the hyper-stylized features he has delivered over the years. Whether it’s his striking choices in visual language, kinetic action sequences, or the abundant use of slow-motion photography, Snyder certainly seems impressed with the elements he’s gathered together for this latest venture he pitched ages ago as Star Wars meets Seven Samurai. Well, as unconcerned as I am with how much two of the most influential films ever made impacted this film’s ideas, my focus was more drawn into why I’m not having as much fun as I would have liked. Sure, the film looks nice, but this wasn’t exactly giving me new hope for Snyder.

Some convoluted narration by Anthony Hopkins (as Jimmy!) provides a setup for what’s happening in a distant galaxy. Essentially, a ruthless empire (the Motherworld) is trying to snuff out any rebel activity they find. Our main focus is on Kora (Sofia Boutella), a warrior with a past who now lives on a farming colony. Bad things go down when the evil empire’s forces arrive, led by Ed Skrein’s Atticus Noble. A village chief is murdered, and Kora kills a group of soldiers in return. Knowing no good can come of this, She teams with a farmer (Michiel Huisman) and a mercenary (Charlie Hunnam) to fly off to different planets in an effort to recruit several more warriors to help them fight back against the Motherworld and protect their land.

See Also: ‘Army of the Dead’ Review: Viva Los Zombies

Here’s the thing: as oddly divisive as Snyder seems to be, I do mostly like what he offers. His films feel largely like giant playgrounds where a filmmaker was given the chance to lean into a variety of his inspirations for the sake of delivering visually intense entertainment. Granted, I wasn’t huge on his choices for his DC films, and I don’t tend to leave thinking his movies have much to say beyond surface-level thematics, but the guy works hard to impress his audience. So what went wrong here?

Well, to start, while I don’t find fault in having the two prominent films as the source for the most inspiration (this isn’t even the first film to use that pitch – check out the Roger Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Star), it is sort of odd to see Snyder try to mess around with that formula by using less impressive tropes to shake it up. Whether it’s character motivations or the understanding that we’re only getting half of the story, it’s a film that is over two hours yet still feels oddly lacking in details that could have made a difference. Granted, I must believe the 3-hour R-rated version has enough to round out these issues, but they nonetheless exist in this form of the film.

With that in mind, I would have at least enjoyed seeing this cast really dig into their personas. Sadly, there’s a lot of repetition taking place that doesn’t allow these people to amount to much in this first half. Djimon Hounsou, for example, surely has a lot more to expand on regarding his imprisoned general, but we barely get to learn what he’s all about. Instead, we meet him and a few others, hear what they have to say through a speech that supplies info without much heart behind it, and then move on to meet the next person.

Assembling the team takes place in the film’s second act, which at least allows for a variety of locations to be seen. The first act doesn’t get things off to the most energizing of starts. We are presumably supposed to enjoy the world-building and gain sympathy for the characters embodied by citizens that include a young girl set to eventually be threatened with sexual assault and a very bearded Corey Stoll, who is certainly welcome, but the braids within this bristly face make me wonder if there’s more about the society that we could appreciate to justify this aesthetic. Regardless, it all takes a while to get through in a film that should either be aiming for the urgency akin to Star Wars or a stronger sense of place, as in Kurosawa’s classic.

As mentioned, the team assembly portion of the film does mix things up, yet it feels like there’s a dearth of screen charisma to make all of this more fun and exciting. My chief example is Boutella, who is undoubtedly a capable physical performer but doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a solid lead here. To his credit, Hunnam is the one person who feels game on the side of the good guys. He has the right kind of attitude to play with the punk spirit Snyder has for his more brutal depiction of a galaxy far, far away. And Skrein is effective enough as a baddie who is both odd enough to have alien/robo worms sucking at plugs in his skin yet tight enough to dress like the lead singer of an indie rock group for much of the film’s second half.

The weird quirks, much like in many of Snyder’s films, allow for areas that let the film stand out better than just seeing incredible sights in extreme slow motion. With that said, I’ve never questioned Snyder’s ability to deliver well-staged action in his features, and yet this film suffers from editing issues that clearly need to hide the more violent moments. By the time we get to the third act, the action is at least big enough where the scope can allow for less intimate forms of battle that need to remove shots to appeal to an intended rating. Still, it’s an odd step backward in a department Snyder has never struggled with in the past.

Am I saying a lot rides on the second part (The Scargiver, due in April 2024), to make up for what I feel is lacking here? Not quite. This film has a proper structure to leave it as a singular enough feature, regardless of all the loose ends. No, I would wish for a better understanding of why I should be more invested in all of this. Surely, it cannot just amount to how cool it all looks. The worlds we visit didn’t inspire me to want to learn more about them, the characters mostly fall flat, which includes Doona Bae as a cybernetic fighter with twin laser swords. So why can’t this be more fulfilling? I root for things like this to succeed (Mortal Engines, FTW!), but Rebel Moon doesn’t quite have the droids I was looking for or much else beyond Snyder’s drive to make a polished, big-budget space opera.

Rebel Moon will be available to stream on Netflix starting December 22, 2023.

4
Poor
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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