The impressive visuals and sound of Netflix’s Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire can’t disguise the recycled, hollow nature of its characters and story.
Yay, Rebel Moon. Or, more specifically, Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire. A new film from Zack Snyder, the least controversial and divisive director of our day. Look, I know this probably isn’t necessary to say, but I want to make it clear right now that I have no stake in whatever “war” breaks out among Snyder fans and haters. I like Snyder fine as a director, but I’m not part of his psychotic cult of fans that gets rock hard every time he so much as sneezes. I’m also not holding onto any animosity towards him for supposedly destroying a few precious superheroes or saying Batman should be violated in prison or whatever. I went into Rebel Moon completely open to the possibility that it could be amazing, terrible, or anywhere in between, and I’m not influenced by any idiotic agenda or bias.
On that note … yeah, this wasn’t very good.
Rebel Moon takes place in a galaxy far, far away (but not a long time ago), where a government called the Motherworld rules with a tyrannical iron fist. Kora (Sofia Boutella) is a former commander who now lives as a peaceful farmer, until the Motherworld visits her planet, led by Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein). When the Motherworld declares that they will force the population to give up their harvest, Kora and her friend Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) venture out to recruit warriors from other planets to help them fight back, with the aid of a pilot and mercenary played by Charlie Hunnam.
There’s additional semi-complicated backstory, but it really doesn’t matter. Rebel Moon is a hodgepodge of roughly a dozen different sci-fi and fantasy tropes that, instead of being woven together in any sort of smart or even organic way, are just clustered together seemingly for the sake of having them. Initially, the story is interesting enough, if still not remarkable. You moderately care about Kora’s village, as well as another side plot seemingly being built up involving a slave girl who befriends a robot servant (Anthony Hopkins). But once the quest gets going, any and all meaningful character building is blown up faster than Alderaan in a better sci-fi fantasy.
That’s not to say Rebel Moon doesn’t try … I guess? We get introductions to every warrior and ally that’s recruited, and they’re all given somewhat interesting backstories. But they are as hollow and forgettable as you can imagine, because nothing from any sequences dedicated to them ever amounts to anything. These warriors get their moments to shine and then become one step above background characters. It feels like their very purpose for existing is to let the film pay tribute to other films and popular tropes, which would be fine as a few small winks and nods. But when the whole story is quest after quest after quest, with each one being just as irrelevant as the last, it all becomes white noise.
The Creator, another original science fiction/action film from earlier this year, also faced criticism for recycling familiar plot beats. And while that is an issue with that film, The Creator at least committed to fleshing out what it was working with and got us invested in its characters and world. Rebel Moon doesn’t even do that. Motivations and connections that were established minutes prior are treated like the most grand, operatic things you’ve ever seen. Djimon Hounsou plays one of the warriors, and he is once again wasted by having one well-acted scene before he’s almost completely forgotten. There’s apparently a love subplot despite the two involved characters having zero romantic chemistry, but another character says there’s a love subplot so I guess it’s there.
Even Korra herself feels like a mere onlooker half the time, and Sofia Boutella’s performance, while serviceable, doesn’t do much to elevate the material. Nor does Michiel Huisman’s, and he’s saddled with even weaker material. Ray Fischer (who plays another warrior) and Charlie Hunnam are the only two actors on the heroes’ end that stand out as truly engaging to watch, and obviously Ed Skrein is fun as the type of smarmy douche he could play in his sleep by now. But no actor has anything to work with beyond the outlines of what should have been much more interesting characters.
I could see the potential of Rebel Moon, but the script would have to be heavily reworked. Maybe the rebellion recruitment process could involve different forms of coercion or even manipulation. Maybe at least one character’s past outside of Kora’s could actually matter. The endgame initially looks like it’s going in a different direction than what I initially expected, only to then not take that big swing. The only praise I can give Rebel Moon’s plot involves a third-act surprise that I legitimately didn’t see coming. I think the fact that it got me is more of a testament to one actor’s performance, but I still like the idea and wish it would have amounted to something more than an excuse for a climax and a cliffhanger for the next film.
As a Part 1, I wouldn’t say Rebel Moon feels like an unfinished story, but it’s such an empty film that it doesn’t feel like it earns a To Be Continued. I’m not at all anxiously waiting to see what happens next. Hell, I’m not even that eager to get more of this universe. Which is a shame, because there’s clearly so much detail and work that went into bringing the universe to life. Some of the creature designs are very creative, and the visual effects are mostly really convincing. Every otherworldly creation moves in a tangible way, and by far the most praise-worthy thing in Rebel Moon is the juicy, earth-shattering sound mixing. The finale ends with a giant ship being taken down, and I’ve rarely felt the sheer destructive scale of such an event than here.
The trademark Zack Snyder slow-motion shots and return, and I’m fine with them like I’ve always been. They would enhance the emotional power of specific moments if there was any emotional power to enhance. He still shoots his action mostly well, and it’s deliciously brutal despite not being gory. My only small gripe is with how some parts of some shots look smudged up. Not because of any focus shifting tricks; it literally looks like someone rubbed their thumb on the lens and they didn’t redo the takes. I know that’s not what happened – though that would be hilarious – but it’s the only way I can think to describe what I was looking at. All in all, Rebel Moon looks impressive and expensive as a whole, but it still isn’t quite on par visually with some of the other grand cinematic spectacles of recent years, including The Creator.
I haven’t seen all of Zack Snyder’s films, but I’ve seen enough to know that his strengths lie in simplistic but grand visual storytelling. But that also means he’s drawing dead if he doesn’t have a meaty enough script to work with. Rebel Moon’s script is littered with meaningless copies of other film tropes, empty character building, a story full of thin air, and even a handful of overly cheesy, on-the-nose dialogue. When I’m calling dialogue on-the-nose, you know it’s bad. I just don’t understand how Snyder thought this story was good enough to throw so much money and talent into it. I get the desire to create a wholly original science fiction universe, especially after the newly restored clout he’s gotten in recent years. But unless he has something insanely brilliant in mind for Part 2, the stale juice really doesn’t seem worth the squeeze here.
Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire is out now in select US theaters and will be streaming on Netflix from December 22, 2023.