Rebel Moon Part One review: Zack Snyder’s Netflix epic is a borderline incoherent shambles

Rebel Moon Part One review: Zack Snyder’s Netflix epic is a borderline incoherent shambles

With Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire, Zack Snyder promised a more “mature” take on Star Wars. Unfortunately, it’s more “Star Wars for people who think those movies are too political and don’t feature enough sexual violence”. The director’s two-part Netflix epic (Part Two: The Scargiver will release in April of next year) stems directly from an old pitch made to Kathleen Kennedy back when she was the co-chair of Lucasfilm, shortly before it was acquired by Disney. It’s a film populated by some of the Zack Snyder’s Justice League filmmaker’s worst impulses: a mess of imagery, some of it attempting to shock, congregated largely around the idea of what might look good in a trailer.

Rebel Moon, co-written with Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten, is a Seven Samurai riff in which the space-viking homestead of Veldt is visited upon by Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) and the evil Imperium army. What follows is an unnecessarily long debate with farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) about wheat yields. Atticus demands food and submission. Kora (Sofia Boutella), an immigrant to Veldt whose history leads back to the Imperium, decides to fight back. She and Gunnar then potter around the galaxy, collecting weary warriors for the cause: namely Titus (Djimon Hounsou), Kai (Charlie Hunnam), Tarak (Staz Nair), Nemesis (Bae Doona), and Darrian Bloodaxe (Ray Fisher).

The visits to each of their planets is truncated, since Kora need only yell in their face about “revenge” or “honour”, or defeat a monster, in order to convince them to join the squad and immediately fade into the background. It’s a shame, since Snyder’s always possessed formidable intuition when it comes to actors, and the likes of Boutella, Hounsou and Doona are exactly the kind of talented people who should be fronting major sci-fi vehicles. Fisher, too, especially deserves his moment of triumph, following the racism he allegedly faced from Joss Whedon on the set of Justice League. He’s given one motivational speech here, but it’s delivered barely five minutes after we’ve met him.

There’s a lot here that could, theoretically, be solved by the R-rated, director’s cut Snyder has insisted was always a part of the release plan. But why then should audiences have to sit through a two-and-a-bit-hour trailer for a second film that we’ve been pinky-promised is better? Especially when what’s on screen is borderline incoherent? Perhaps I’m being too demanding as an audience member, but when we’re repeatedly told that characters are travelling to a colosseum planet, I would then expect, when we arrive at said colosseum planet, to actually see what’s happening inside the colosseum. In Rebel Moon, they arrive at the entrance, only for the film to immediately cut away to a guy in a room.

While there’s sincere cultural value in “stuff that looks cool”, Snyder’s full-throated investment in, say, a slow-mo shot of a shirtless, muscle-bound man leaping onto the back of a gryphon doesn’t entirely excuse him from deeper analysis. Rebel Moon, in that light, has a somewhat baffling ideological outlook. On the one hand, it handily avoids the pitfalls of appropriation by locating each character within a world largely suited to the actor’s own cultural heritage (let’s perhaps exclude Hunnam here, whose Irish accent is about to become infamous).

Yet, there’s very little sense of how these planets are united or divided, in a way that becomes particularly troubling when Snyder attempts to locate them within a context in which racist and sexual violence are used as tools of war. This is not the first time Snyder has directly tied female empowerment to sexual assault (see: his 2011 film Sucker Punch, among others). And, despite the film featuring a prominent non-binary character, played by non-binary actor E Duffy, it’s also not the first time a supposed lair of degeneracy has been depicted as explicitly queer-coded (see: his 2006 film 300). Here, the film’s obligatory cantina scene inexplicably seems to feature the cast of Cabaret loitering in the background. Are we meant to be too distracted by the mutant spider-woman or flower crown-wearing robot to notice? Well, it didn’t work – Rebel Moon wears its shambles on its sleeve.

Dir: Zack Snyder. Starring: Sofia Boutella, Charlie Hunnam, Michiel Huisman, Djimon Hounsou, Doona Bae, Ray Fisher, Ed Skrein, Anthony Hopkins. 15, 134 minutes.

‘Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire’ is on Netflix from 21 December