Today, the first installment of Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon releases on Netflix. Saying the name Zack Snyder in and of itself sparks debate. Starting off with audience favorites like the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300, the writer-director took a turn for the polarizing with his adaptation of Watchmen; a trend that continued as he became the architect for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
Perhaps he’s best associated these days with the tumultuous production of Justice League, his removal from the film, its subsequent butchering, and his return to finish the film years later due to outcry from a vocal fanbase. That fanbase remains a constant point of contention in the online film space, but their devotion to Snyder’s singular way of making movies caused Netflix to take notice. Thus, a partnership was established. After their first collaboration, Army of the Dead, earned critical success and good streaming numbers, Snyder has leveraged that goodwill to make his longtime passion project: Rebel Moon.
The story of how Rebel Moon came to fruition is as entertaining as anything in Snyder’s career. Existing in some form in his head for over 20 years, Snyder pulled the idea from various influences, including Seven Samurai, Heavy Metal magazine, Dune, and Star Wars.
Just as Disney was reviving Star Wars, Snyder actually pitched them on making this idea as a Star Wars movie. They obviously passed, and so did ex-collaborator Warner Bros. The idea was reconfigured into a video game, comic, television series, and any form of media under the sun.
Netflix eventually swooped in to save this day, with a caveat: the film is now split into two parts, and he had to release a PG-13 version of each part first. Enter Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire, a compromised vision that nonetheless bursts at the seams with Zack Snyder’s imagination in spite of some serious issues.
A promising start for Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire
Lovingly cobbled together from a “Greatest Hits” of science fiction, western, and samurai films that inspired him, Zack Snyder establishes a universe worth exploring. In a galaxy far, far away (although if it is “a long time ago…” remains to be seen), the central planet of Motherworld once represented hope for the future.
After the death of its benevolent king and his beloved niece, the ascendance of Regent Balisarius (Fra Fee) turns a world aspiring towards peace into the harsh military industrial complex of the Imperium. Former Imperium soldier and current fugitive Kora (Sofia Boutella) lives a quiet life on the farm planet of Veidt. She can’t escape the long shadow that the Imperium casts forever, and soon enough, Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) comes knocking for Veidt’s resources.
This initial version of Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire at least allows the opening act to breathe. It’s almost meditative, as Kora attempts to build a new life for herself. There are quiet, contemplative moments of Kora embracing the community led by village chief Sindri (Corey Stoll), finding refuge in ale at a harvest celebration, stealing glances at a strapping farmer, and, in a profoundly arresting image, reaping the fields silhouetted by the red light of a massive ringed planet. These images present an aching humanity that Snyder’s films are not usually noted for having.
The sneering villainy of Ed Skrein’s scenery-chewing antagonist makes for some truly skin crawling moments. His inspection of the village’s crop recalls to mind the introduction of SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds. Subtle as a bag of bricks, although it is, the direct line drawn between the Imperium and Nazism/fascism lands exceedingly well.
A portrait of a simple land occupied against their will by a militaristic regime; the scenes set in the village of Veidt rally up audience disdain for the villains and sympathy for the heroes as well as one of these kinds of films can. The casual cruelty of Imperium officers towards a farm girl, and that same farm girl finding beauty in a sentient Imperium robot who is at odds with himself (Anthony Hopkins) are two examples of how Snyder’s script represents a leap forward for him in character work and establishing the human cost. It’s important to note, the script was co-written by Kurt Johnstad (the 300 series) and Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 4).
By the time Kora witnesses an attempted assault by Imperium goons, decides to blow her cover and whip some ass in glorious, sweaty, speed-ramped action, the stakes, and emotion established makes it cathartic.
Revenge of the edit
And yet, this is where the cracks in Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire start to become apparent. Despite Zack Snyder’s cinematography improving (more on that later) what feels like it was initially a snappy, slick sequence (and for the most part, plays like one still!) loses all its momentum whenever impacts happen. Rebel Moon reflexively cuts away from violence at any moment that may even slightly cross the line.
Given the film’s bleak tone and rating-pushing language, this doesn’t make much sense. Still, it’s an acceptable, though annoying, concession made for a PG-13. What threatens to sink the entire film is swaths of what I can only speculate as heavily condensed, or otherwise cut entirely, core storylines.
What compounds the issue mostly is that Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire is ostensibly set up as an ensemble piece, where Kora must unite a band of warriors from all over the galaxy to help defend her home village. Each of these characters have their own unique lore and are played to perfection by their actors, but not all are treated equally. In fact, a vast majority feel like cameos at best. The roguish bounty hunter Kai (Charlie Hunnam) and fellow farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) are given plenty to do, whereas warrior Tarak (Staz Nair) and cyborg Nemesis (Doona Bae) are somewhere in the middle.
Their storylines feel like previews into a different movie. Although highly entertaining, we begin to wonder why we are suddenly seeing Tarak learn how to ride a winged creature or Nemesis hunting down a spider lady (played by Jena Malone).
And then there are characters like Djimon Hounsou’s Titus, Darrian (Ray Fisher) and Devra Bloodaxe (Cleopatra Coleman), who are reduced to mere fragments. It doesn’t help that all these characters have wildly different backgrounds on wildly different planets, leading to severe whiplash jumping around so much. There’s simply not enough time to process the ensemble.
Learning to love the mess of Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire
Really, the entire second act might as well be a sizzle reel. Snyder brings everything together in a visually stunning, speed-ramped to the max action sequence-laden finale pumped with the emotion of the first act, segueing into a jaw-dropping cliffhanger that easily draws out excitement for Part 2. By the end, I had a smile on my face. Sure, Rebel Moon – Part 1 plays like a trailer for its longer version. But it’s a great trailer!
As a proof of concept, it takes us through a mind-melting variety of fascinating worlds and characters that suggest Zack Snyder is passionate about this universe. Simply put, that passion rubs off. Nothing this well-shot, or well scored by frequent collaborator Junkie XL can be dismissed outright.
Snyder acts as his own Director of Photography this time, capturing everything from the idyllic farmlands to cyberpunk cities and gladiatorial arenas with aplomb. Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire is kind of a mess, but a delicious one, predicated on if you can see the potential in the universe and forthcoming longer cut or not. I see the vision.
★★★ / ♥♥♥½
Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire releases on Netflix this Thursday, December 21, 2023. Are you excited for more from Zack Snyder and this new sci-fi world? Let us know what you think on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.