The arrival of a new Zack Snyder movie is always likely to spark heated discussions. For Snyder enthusiasts, the director's latest project is another chance to celebrate his distinct filmmaking style. Those less enthused by Snyder's visceral body of work, meanwhile, can further claim the former DCEU creative isn't deserving of the pedestal he's placed upon.
Which brings us to Rebel Moon, a brand-new sci-fi fantasy multimedia franchise Snyder co-created (with long-time collaborators Shay Hatten and Kurt Johnstad) for Netflix. Unsurprisingly, given the camps film aficionados usually fall into when it comes to Snyder-developed projects, early reactions to the first entry in Netflix's answer to Star Wars – Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire – have already proven divisive ahead of its December 21 release.
So, is Rebel Moon's first installment – Part 2: The Scargiver is due in April 2024 – destined to be one of the best Netflix movies, or is it awash with spectacular visuals and Snyder's trademark slow-mo flair but little else? In my view, A Child of Fire is Snyder's most ambitious, epic, and carefully constructed movie to date. However, in news that'll irritate diehard followers, I don't consider it his magnum opus.
Some time ago, in a different galaxy far, far away
As the franchise's trailblazer, Part 1: A Child of Fire opens with some expository lore that tries to set the scene for Rebel Moon's wider universe. All well and good, right? Not really – the scene is piecemeal in its approach, with a 'here are the basics' dump that's rushed in its execution. A customary Star Wars title crawl, it certainly isn't – yet, given Snyder's desire for audiences to look past the clear influence Lucasfilm's legendary series had on Rebel Moon, I understand his attempt to differentiate its opening from its sci-fi cousin.
With that breezy, mythos-laced introduction dealt with, we descend onto the inhabited moon of Veldt where we meet Kora (Sofia Boutella), Rebel Moon's protagonist. An outsider with a tragic past, Kora was taken in by Veldt's farming community to begin her life anew.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Motherworld – a galactic superpower that began as a benevolent monarchial ruler but has become increasingly authoritarian – shatters the peace. Under the Imperium's dictatorial leader Grand Regent Balisarius (Fra Fee), high-ranking admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) and his forces threaten to destroy Veldt for selling its grain to the Bloodaxes, a group of freedom fighters who defy Motherworld's oppressive regime. Determined to fight for Veldt and seek redemption for her past actions, Kora – with the aid of timid farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) – sets out to recruit a team of warriors to defend her new home.
If parts of A Child of Fire's plot sound familiar, it's because – and this is the last time I'll compare the two, I promise – Rebel Moon is a Star Wars movie in all but name. Snyder initially pitched his college-conceived idea to Lucasfilm in 2012 but repurposed the concept for Netflix following Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm later that year.
Numerous iconic films informed Rebel Moon's development, including sci-fi epics Dune, The Matrix, and Blade Runner, western team-ups like The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen, and multiple fantasy flicks (four of which were surprisingly influential on Snyder's new Netflix film). However, while Rebel Moon won't ever exist in the Star Wars universe, it's hard to overlook how much it resembles George Lucas' cinematic juggernaut.
From Charlie Hunnam's Han Solo-esque smuggler Kai and the Motherworld's clear nod to the Galactic Empire to the lightsaber-style heated butcher blades Doona Bae's Nemesis wields and the Imperium's Sith-like 'Rule of Two' principle, Star Wars' fingerprints are all over Rebel Moon. Sure, some references are more subtle than others, but, for better or worse, Rebel Moon wears its Star Wars tribute-laced heart on its sleeve through its recycled content, which doesn't aid its efforts to be seen as anything more than a Star Wars-lite movie.
Viva La Revolución
Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire is more than a mere Star Wars clone, though. There's plenty I enjoyed about one of 2023's most anticipated new Netflix movies, even if some of its notable plus points are burdened by irksome creative decisions.
For one, its universe-building is impressive. There's a grandiose scale and scope to its concoction and assembly; its fully lived-in galaxy comprises numerous breathable star systems, exotic worlds, innovative alien races, and substantial mythos. Rebel Moon Part 1 only scratches the surface of the franchise's sprawling cosmos, and I was left in awe by the seemingly infinite potential that's ripe for exploration in future projects.
There's a real sense of serenity and beauty in Rebel Moon's visual makeup, too. Snyder fanatics will be pleased to learn his latest big-budget offering is as grubby and muted (color palette-wise) as many of his other films. However, like Army of the Dead – Snyder's first Netflix movie – and even aspects of Zack Snyder's Justice League, there's an abundance of eye-popping, bright, and warm-hued sequences that bleed through the gloom in picturesque fashion. That Snyder built a whole new camera lens to give Rebel Moon a "distorted retro" look speaks to his willingness to make it as visually arresting as possible.
A similar slice of calm punctuates the panoptic grimness of Rebel Moon's narrative. Whether it's the endearing meeting between Veldt farmhand Sam (Charlotte Maggi) and one of Motherworld's recycled mechanical knights Jimmy (voiced by Anthony Hopkins), or tender moments shared between Kora and Gunnar throughout their warrior-searching mission, A Child of Fire shows Snyder's capacity to tell engaging, emotionally-rich stories that don't place spectacle over substance.
The material in such scenes allows Rebel Moon's main players to deliver great performances. There's a sharp and brooding intensity to Boutella's Kora, who's been shaped by the psychological and emotional trauma she's been subjected to. Her arc, which shifts from fearful defector to virtuous dissident, is an archetypal hero's journey-based one, but it's an evolution emboldened by Boutella's understated showing. Of Kora's allies, it's Hopkins' Jimmy who's deserving of similar praise, with the iconic actor's portrayal exuding a tranquillity and command of the screen in the few brief scenes he's given – a chief concern of mine, from a wider character perspective, I'll get into shortly.
It's Skrein's deplorable and vindictive Noble, though, who shines brightest. An initially charismatic villain – it's part of his disarming charm – it's not long before Noble shows his brutal side on Veldt; a malevolence that carries through the film's two-hour runtime. Rebel Moon Part 1 is very much Kora's story, but Skrein's devilishly imposing performance makes it feel like his. I'd be surprised if I don't double down on that belief if we spend more time with Noble in Snyder's forthcoming R-rated director's cut, which is going to test your runtime limits.
Unfortunately, it's the film's impending extended cut that gave rise to my biggest gripe with A Child of Fire: it doesn't devote enough time to its broad cast of characters and, ultimately, why I should buy into their crusade to thwart the autocratic Motherworld.
Like any David versus Goliath story, I'm going to root for the underdog, but it's difficult to emotionally invest in Kora's merry band of insurgents when some of them are criminally underutilized. It's a glaring issue almost certainly down to Rebel Moon Part 1's overstuffed latter half, which barrels through at a pace of knots compared to the exposition and set-up-heavy first hour.
I'm inclined to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt, as I believe we'll learn more about certain individuals, including the disgraced General Titus (Djimon Hounsou) and nobleman Tarak (Staz Nair), in The Scargiver as well as the two movies' director's cuts. However, as a supposedly full package, this edition of Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire lacks fully realized characters. Devoid of substantial backstories or reasons for why they're willing to lay down their lives battling the Imperium, I struggled to care about most of them, particularly when it came to A Child of Fire's climactic set-piece showdown.
Speaking of action, most of it is good if unspectacular. Rebel Moon Part 1's early set pieces are slightly clunky in their design and execution, but they become more refined and far more enjoyable to watch as the plot progresses. Some, such as Kora and Noble's confrontation during the final act, are unexpectedly brutal for a PG-13 flick, with satisfying physicality and weighty beatdowns aplenty.
Snyder purists will be equally happy that his signature flair for slow-mo is consistent throughout these sequences. Pleasingly, these drawn-out cinematic shots don't feel as in-your-face or overused as his previous films, either, making for a gratifyingly entertaining watch. That said, there are a couple of incidents where Snyder's trademark style is superfluous, so he hasn't fully suppressed his fondness for slow-mo shot selection.
Actionless sequences aren't always as captivating as they could be, though, with the dialog in some scenes is clumsy and slightly disjointed. It's a problem likely down to segments of A Child of Fire being edited out and held back for its director's cut, meaning such instances that would ordinarily make a generally well-constructed, self-contained story feel like it's lacking conversational punch and panache.
Anyone hoping for some much-needed levity amid Rebel Moon Part 1's rather bleak plot should check their expectations as well. The gravity of Kora's situation, and those of her fellow rebels, means there's little room for humor. Of its ensemble cast, Hunnam does his best to inject some merriment and draw laughs from viewers (even if it's through the questionable accent he cooked up for Kai), but even those moments are patchy at best.
I had a good time with Rebel Moon Part 1, and maintain it's the most ambitious and visually arresting film in Snyder's back catalog. Like Denis Villeneuve's Dune, it's an explosive and absorbing sci-fi-centric epic, but it also – silly as it is to say, given the 'Part 1' element of its title – has an anti-climatic aura that left me wanting more.
I'm unsure if it's as fascinatingly immersive and narratively cohesive as some of Snyder's previous works, either. The vibrancy of Army of the Dead, the entertainment value and watercolor-splattered aesthetic of 300, and the wonderfully realized grittiness of his near-perfect Watchmen adaptation (we don't talk about its butchered ending, okay?) helped to make them more complete movies in my eyes.
There's every chance I'll change my option when Rebel Moon Part 2 arrives to complete the franchise's duology, or if A Child of Fire's director's cut – like Zack Snyder's Justice League did for Justice League – augments the original. Until those flicks arrive, though, Rebel Moon Part 1 comes across as a semi-enjoyable precursor to a grander, more eventful sequel to come.
Rebel Moon Part 1: A Child of Fire releases on Thursday, December 21 in the US, and Friday, December 22 in the UK and Australia.
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As TechRadar's senior entertainment reporter, Tom covers all of the latest movies, TV shows, and streaming service news that you need to know about. You'll regularly find him writing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and many other topics of interest.
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