Zack Snyder is stretching so hard to make an epic space opera with Rebel Moon that he forgets to give us rounded characters. As failures go, though, it’s a handsome one.
There are lots of reasons to be excited about Rebel Moon. Whether you’re a fully paid-up member of the Zack Snyder fan army or not, you have to concede that he’s an ambitious and unique filmmaker who relishes the chance to paint on a massive canvas. And canvases don’t come much bigger than a two-part Netflix space opera.
As has been widely reported, Rebel Moon started life as Snyder’s pitch for some new Star Wars movies, but he has retooled it into something entirely original. Well, I say original. It pilfers liberally from the best science fiction movies, adding lashings of Dune and even Doctor Who to its distinctly Lucas-esque storytelling, all built upon a story structure inspired by some of the best Westerns – most notably The Magnificent Seven.
Our protagonist is Sofia Boutella’s Kora – a former warrior for the despotic Motherworld who now lives in exile as part of a tranquil farming community. But her tragic backstory – we know it’s tragic because it’s told through multiple maudlin flashbacks – intrudes upon her new life when Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein) arrives and demands supplies. Yep, in true Star Wars style, the first half of this movie is about the logistics and economics of grain harvesting.
Kora soon finds herself in the crosshairs of the Motherworld and its mostly unseen leader, Regent Balisarius (Fra Fee). With humble farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) alongside her, Kora sets off to enlist the superbly-monikered rebel leader Darrian Bloodaxe (Ray Fisher) and renowned warrior General Titus (Djimon Hounsou) to her cause, picking up some other colorful new allies along the way.
Let’s start with the good stuff. In a world in which so many new movies of this scale are hamstrung by piss-poor VFX, Rebel Moon looks outstanding. Every different planet is visually distinct and the decision to build as many practical sets as possible pays off handsomely. These worlds feel lived-in and real, rather than the CGI-sterilized nothing-worlds of the Star Wars prequels.
That helps when it comes to the action, which benefits from Snyder’s patented music video-style editing – I hope you like slow-mo – and some terrific stunt work. A climactic face-off between Boutella and Skrein gets particularly nasty and inventive. When the Rebel Moon release date comes around, watch out for the flying teeth.
So in terms of style, it’s a winner. Unfortunately, the problems emerge when it comes to substance: there isn’t any. The script, penned by Snyder along with regular collaborators Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten, does next to nothing to make its audience care about its central characters. Rebel Moon is so busy telling us how epic everything is that it forgets how important character is to making stories feel significant.
There’s not so much characterization here as there is a series of super-wordy flashbacks in which the movie delves back into its own tangled web of lore. All of this will probably make for a great novelization, but it does nothing on the big screen. The movie never has a chance to build any momentum because it keeps stopping to tell us who these people are and why we’re supposed to care, instead of showing us those things. It’s just not enough.
The performances are impressively committed, but none of the cast has anything to grip onto in order to build a character. Charlie Hunnam, in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s a standard roguish type, hamstrung by an absurd and inconsistent Northern Irish accent. Why does this interstellar ruffian sound like he’s from Belfast? We’ll never know. He doesn’t even get a flashback.
Sofia Boutella, though, does deserve praise for her work in the lead role. She brings a real physicality to her performance and acquits herself well during the enjoyably hard-hitting action sequences, for which she mostly did her own stunts. Whenever she and the impressively slimy Skrein are on screen together, the film briefly comes alive.
Rebel Moon also falls victim to something that has been a perennial issue throughout 2023 – part one syndrome. But perhaps more than any other example of this phenomenon – Spider-Verse, Fast X, Mission: Impossible, etc – Rebel Moon feels like an orphaned half of a movie. It’s very much the first act of a story with a climactic action sequence bolted on in the hope of preventing audiences from feeling short-changed. It doesn’t work.
Despite all of this, though, there’s something about Rebel Moon that almost carries it through the problems. It’s impossible to fault its ambition and, when it occasionally finds its groove, it’s loads of fun. Unfortunately, there’s far too much dead air and leaden meandering, with a gaping void where all of the heart and humanity should be.
But while this won’t trouble any list of 2023’s best movies, I am curious about whether part two can turn the spaceship around. So I guess if we view this as a very extended trailer for part two, it could work? That feels like the very definition of damning with faint praise.
If you’re after more streaming recommendations, find out about the best Netflix movies and everything new on Netflix this month. You can also learn about the one MCU movie Zack Snyder would make. Finally, for great small screen sci-fi, look ahead to the Foundation season 3 release date.