You’ve seen this film before.
Maybe it wasn’t called “Rebel Moon,” but you’ve definitely seen this. Have you ever seen a space opera? A movie where a plucky band of rebels fight against a superior force? Have you seen literally any science fiction movie from the last 50 years? Then, yeah, you’ve seen this.
Rebel Moon (Part 1) is the latest movie from writer/director Zack Snyder. Snyder is a fantastic visual stylist. If he drew comic books, he would be highly sought after. His eye for a killer shot is incredible. Unfortunately, his story skills and pacing leave a lot to be desired. Too often, his movies get bogged down in bad, portentous dialogue and awkward story beats that lead nowhere. (Ah, remember all the fun we had with “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?)
Snyder pitched this movie to Lucasfilm as a darker, more mature Star Wars. Lucasfilm passed, prompting Snyder to go make this on his own for Netflix. The thing is, we already have a darker, more mature Star Wars project. It’s called Andor, and it is sensational. Rebel Moon is not.
Rebel Moon tells the story of Kora (Sofia Boutella), a young woman working on a farm on the moon of the planet Veldt. She’s been happily toiling away, hiding her dark and mysterious past, until a ship from the Imperium shows up. The Imperium, as the opening narration dump explains, is a thousand-year-old empire based on the Motherworld. After consuming all of their own resources, they have taken to conquering other planets.
However, in the power vacuum after the King and Princess were assassinated, there are sparks of rebellion, led by Debra Bloodaxe. The sadistic Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein) is leading the hunt for her, stopping on Veldt to torture the populace and steal their grain. Realizing that the Imperium isn’t going to stop until they’ve taken everything, Kora reverts to her old ways. She was a high-ranking soldier in the Imperium, and after killing the garrison Noble left behind, she heads out to find the rebels herself so they can help her defend her new home. She comes across a number of badass fighters who volunteer to help, including the ne’er-do-well pilot Kai (Charlie Hunnan, rocking a ludicrous Irish accent), the nobleman-turned-jacked-slave Tarak (Staz Nair), the expert swordswoman Nemesis (Doona Bae), and the disgraced former general of the Imperium, Titus (Djimon Hounsou).Once this ragtag crew is assembled, they head back to fight off the Imperium.
Rebel Moon is made up of snippets from other movies. There’s Star Wars, of course, with the space opera setting and a cantina that is a wretched hive of scum and villainy and the laser swords (I am really wondering how those got in without a cease and desist from Lucasfilm’s lawyers).
The plot echoes that of Seven Samurai (or the remake, The Magnificent Seven) The Imperium ships look very similar to the ones in the anime Space Battleship Yamato. The Imperium itself seems inspired by House Harkkonen in Dune, and their fascist soldiers in trench coats are straight out of Starship Troopers. Tarak flying on a hippogriff creature looks like a cut scene from Avatar. The distaff crew is lifted right out of Firefly. There are even references to Snyder’s own films, like 300. (One of the mercenaries they pick up is on a gladiator planet. Not sure if they’re betting with quatloos.)
Snyder picked all of these tropes and scenes because he obviously loved all of these movies, but rather than stopping to ask why these scenes worked and what made them funny or clever or interesting, he just picked the stuff that looked cool and threw it in.
Now, I have no problem with tropes or borrowing plot prompts. (“Plucky underdog stands up to overwhelming foe” is a story as old as the Bible, for goodness sake.) But if you are going to lean into tropes, you need to make them interesting. They need to serve an actual story. Tropes are a good shorthand, but if they aren’t being used to add character depth and are instead the entirety of the character, then it’s a problem.
It’s a real problem, because the tropes are doing all of the work here and Snyder put absolutely no effort into the dialogue or characters. Every word sounds like it came out of ChatGPT after it was fed a “Space Fantasy” prompt. There is honestly a line a character is forced to utter that goes, “Queen Issa was called the Life Giver. It was said she had the ability to give life.” I heard that and my brain hurt.
The characters don’t fare a lot better. Aside from Kora, they have no backstory and literally no motivation to go help a farming colony on a distant world. Yet, all of them follow Kora with little hesitation. The characters don’t have personalities; they each have one trait. Kai is a charming rogue. Nemesis has honor. Kora is a brooding bad ass. They’re archetypes. This affects the story, because situations and scenes that ought to have weight and emotion just feel hollow. For example, the film is building to a confrontation between Kora and Noble, and it certainly seems like there ought to be some history between them, but none is ever mentioned. It just becomes yet another of Snyder’s well choreographed fight scenes, complete with his trademark slo-mo and random close ups.
The pacing is also weirdly off. So much time is spent on the set up, there’s barely any room to meet the crew. Some of the characters — like Nemesis and Titus — have hardly any screen time, but the viewer is supposed to care about them. Djimon Hounsou is a wonderful, Oscar-nominated actor, and he has maybe five lines here. The pacing is such a hash that by the end of the 2 hour and 15 minute film, it’s basically gotten to the end of the first act of Seven Samurai.
It’s a real shame, because the visuals here can be stunning, to the point of frustration. Snyder puts so much care and effort into a wide shot of an asteroid field around a ringed planet, or a sun setting through a mist, yet he can’t be bothered to type out a line of dialogue that doesn’t hurt to listen to.
And I could forgive even all of that — the tropes, the bad dialogue, the flat characters — if this was at all fun to watch. It’s not. The best you can say about it is that it’s much lighter on its feet than Zack Snyder’s punishingly long Justice League cut. But that’s really not enough to recommend this.
Part One is available on Netflix now. Part Two comes in April. And I doubt that I’ll be interested enough to check it out.
Rating: 2 out of 5