July 16, 2024

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‘Rebel Moon’ review: Zack Snyder space opera fails to launch

3 min read

Filmmaker Zack Snyder has become a lightning-rod figure in part for the actual movies he makes and in part for the zealous fandom that sprouts up around them. The loyalty of those legions may very well be put to the test by Netflix’s “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire,” Snyder’s new, rather leaden franchise-hopeful. The second part, whose title, “The Scargiver,” is hinted at in the final moments of “Child of Fire,” will be released in a few months and there are also plans underway for other stories spun off from this newly created sci-fi-fantasy universe.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a single movie, attempting to create a ready-made “Star Wars”-like series with its own internal mythology and iconography, and “Child of Fire” doesn’t bear the burden well. With a screenplay credited to Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten from a story by Snyder, the film is too invested in table-setting to be fully enjoyed on its own, at times feeling more like a studio presentation deck than a piece of organic storytelling.

A farming community on a remote moon finds itself under the thumb of the imperial Motherworld for having sold some of its excess grain to a rebel faction. (Yes, the film’s story is largely motivated by wheat.) A mysterious outsider, Kora (Sofia Boutella), sets off with a handsome but naive local farmer, Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), to assemble a band of fighters to defend their land.

An inevitable ragtag group comes together, played by Charlie Hunnam, Doona Bae, Djimon Hounsou, Staz Nair, Cleopatra Coleman, E. Duffy and Ray Fisher. All the while they are pursued by Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein), a sadistic emissary of the Motherworld regime. And let’s not forget the robot soldier incongruously named Jimmy, voiced by Anthony Hopkins.

From left, Charlie Hunnam, Michiel Huisman, Sofia Boutella, Staz Nair and Djimon Hounsou in the movie “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire.”

(Netflix)

As the characters bop from planet to planet, outpost to outpost, there is nothing particularly surprising in either the locations or their adventures. At one point a character jumps from a desert cliff in epic slow-motion to land on a flying creature. Later in the film, a different character jumps from a space dock in epic slow-motion to land on a flying craft. Boutella often has an otherworldly screen presence that makes her perfectly suited for this kind of material, but the fussiness of all that is happening around Kora means that the character and performance never get a chance to breathe and blossom, or to fully come to life.

The so-called “Snyderverse” cycle of DC Comics-inspired films — “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” — sparked controversy for their often unrelenting grimness. With “Rebel Moon,” it feels strange to see a filmmaker presumably freed from the constraints of delivering IP-driven material, only to attempt to create his own generic IP-driven universe instead.

A woman in a robe holds a weapon.

Sofia Boutella in the movie “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire.”

(Clay Enos / Netflix)

As seen in his other movies, “300,” “Watchmen” and “Army of the Dead,” Snyder is at his best when there is a touch of hysterical madness to what he is doing, yet his edgelord impulse toward a sense of in-quotes grit and gloom rarely serves him well.

This first installment of “Rebel Moon” plays like the first two acts of a movie, or perhaps more truly as a haphazardly assembled series of episodes. Whether it will all come together in the second part remains to be seen, but “Child of Fire” already feels like too much narrative throat-clearing.

‘Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire’

Rated: PG-13, for sequences of strong violence, sexual assault, bloody images, language, sexual material and partial nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Playing: Now in limited release; available Dec. 21 on Netflix

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