With the worlds of DC now behind him, writer-director Zack Snyder is ready to build a new original cinematic universe from the ground up with Rebel Moon. The filmmaker has been slowly working on this idea for 20 years now, with Rebel Moon also being envisioned as a possible TV show and video game at one point. More famously, Snyder pitched this concept as a Star Wars movie to Lucasfilm right after the Disney acquisition in 2012. Considering Lucasfilm’s recent track record with studio interference and what happened to Snyder at Warner Bros. with Justice League, perhaps Rebel Moon was always destined to be its own thing. Enter Netflix who have given Snyder complete creative control and vast resources in hopes of birthing a massive franchise. As such, this new sci-fi epic is split into two parts, the first being titled Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire.
Zack Snyder’s partnership with Netflix feels similar to the early days of the DCEU with Man of Steel being promised as the first chapter in a new, long-standing series that will surely rival the competition. Only this time, Snyder’s studio partner is actively working to see this true. The streamer has already announced various Rebel Moon spin-offs, including tie-in comics, an animated series, and a co-op video game, to expand Snyder’s worldbuilding. We’ve seen this all too many times before – a studio investing (and risking) so much into a potential franchise before the first installment has a chance to make an impression on audiences. So is Rebel Moon: Part One: A Child of Fire worthy enough to start a cinematic universe, or is it even good to begin with? Like all things Snyder, the answer to that pivotal question isn’t so straightforward.
Rebel Moon: Part One: A Child of Fire takes place in a universe controlled by the corrupt government of the Motherworld. The power-hungry regent Balisarius (Fra Free) and the Imperium army take no prisoners in their evil rule over the galaxy. We first meet our main hero Kora (Sofia Boutella) living in a peaceful settlement on the moon Veldt, where growing grain is their specialty. There is something different about Kora, as she works diligently to distance herself from the others. Her true nature as a warrior is revealed when the cruel Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) and his Imperium forces come to Veldt to strip her small farming community of its resources and wash out any signs of the growing rebel insurgence. We learn that Kora is actually a former high-ranking Imperium officer, and is at the top of their most-wanted list due to her personal history with Balisarius.
Kora was forced into the Imperium against her own will as a child but fled after coming to terms with her autonomy. She unleashes her old combat skills after years in hiding and buys Veldt some time before the Imperium can return with deadly reinforcements. With the help of fellow farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), Kora embarks on a quest to gather noble warriors from across the galaxy to defend Veldt. In this journey, Kora and Gunnar recruit the smuggler and starship pilot Kai (Charlie Hunnam), a fierce nobleman who can bond with animals named Tarak (Staz Nair), the former Imperium general-turned-freedom fighter Titus (Djimon Hounsou), the cyborg assassin Nemesis (Doona Bae), and Darrian and Devra Bloodaxe (played by Ray Fisher and Cleopatra Coleman, respectively), who are the leaders of the rebellion against the Motherworld. Oh, and there’s also a robot knight named Jimmy voiced by Anthony Hopkins.
Co-written by Kurt Johnstad (300) and Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 4), Rebel Moon is obviously borrowing a lot from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. George Lucas was also inspired by Kurosawa and Samurai cinema when making Star Wars, so this isn’t really a critique. Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire will face many Star Wars comparisons, but that’s inevitable and why shouldn’t Zack Snyder pay homage to Lucas who paved the way for the modern sci-fi genre? Many of these tropes and story elements have been shared in science fiction throughout the decades. Additionally, Snyder’s distinct infusion of fantasy elements and love for mythology gives Rebel Moon the shades of an Arthurian Legend. The film’s tone and atmosphere feel like something this director has been building up to for years.
The overshadowing of Star Wars isn’t too uncanny until the second act, though, where much of it sadly plays out like “Star Wars: Greatest Hits.” Our heroes go to a cantina filled with scum and villainy and meet a scoundrel pilot who has a ship that can get them off-planet. We then meet a greedy junk dealer who offers to free one of the slaves in his debt in a gamble (like in The Phantom Menace). The similarities keep coming, and it’s hard to imagine that this won’t deter certain viewers at home who would prefer to watch any Star Wars film instead. Zack Snyder’s visual work, as both director and cinematographer, does a lot of the heavy lifting in Rebel Moon as this is a story you have already seen before. Moreover, unlike Army of the Dead, Snyder’s cinematography has improved here, capturing some inspiring imagery beyond our imaginations.
Rebel Moon is a visual feast for Snyder fans. The director always keeps you enthralled in the action, up close and personal with the subjects in slow-motion at all times. The fight choreography is precise to the point, and everyone on-screen is up to the physical challenge of bringing these badass sequences to life. But keep in mind, I said this is for Snyder fans. If you don’t mind every single action scene of a two-hour-plus movie being in slow motion, then maybe you can enjoy this too! Moviegoers who haven’t enjoyed any of Snyder’s previous works won’t be won over here, and that’s okay. Any filmmaker this deep into their career shouldn’t be trying to appeal to their naysayers. However, after numerous slow-motion sequences, you can’t help but think that a little more variety in the spectacle would help Rebel Moon from feeling dull after a while.
While the story on paper is familiar, the worlds on screen are unlike anything we’ve seen recently. Rebel Moon takes every chance it gets to be weird in the best ways possible. Alien designs combine multiple imaginative elements that sometimes look too bizarre or taboo, yet this is such a breath of fresh air considering that modern Star Wars has been lacking in this department. Snyder combines practical sets and CGI smoothly for the most part, often choosing to accentuate certain visual effects to give Rebel Moon a more fantasy or mythological look. This hides some of the lesser CGI, but it works nonetheless to give the movie a unique visual flair that is absent from other sci-fi projects. Rebel Moon honestly works just as well visually on a big screen as it does at home.
For all the creative freedom that Netflix gave Zack Snyder on Rebel Moon, it’s ironic that here we find ourselves yet again in a position where a “Snyder Cut” is not just preferred but necessary. Director’s cuts are common for Snyder, though, unlike the Ulitmate Edition of Batman v Superman, both Netflix and Snyder have promised a longer, Rated-R Rebel Moon cut before the release of Part One: A Child of Fire. This automatically sets the original version back, especially since you can really tell when scenes are missing. The second act, apart from repeating known story beats from Star Wars, feels like a montage of disconnected action scenes rather than proper introductions to the rebel warriors whom Kora is recruiting. You don’t get to know much about our ragtag rebel team outside of exposition dumps, some of which explain so much lore that it becomes easy to forget things.
It’s not clear whether or not the Rated-R aspect would improve Rebel Moon, but if it’s more in line with Snyder’s creative vision then why should fans give their time to this lesser cut? This PG-13 cut obviously comes from an executive decision to drive higher streaming numbers, to provide something the whole family can watch together on Netflix this holiday season. Then again, Zack Snyder’s films aren’t exactly known for being for the whole family. The first cut of Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire feels compromised, and Snyder fans would easily agree. Still, Sofia Boutella was born to be an action star and after her roles in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Atomic Blonde, it’s fantastic to finally see her get the spotlight at the center of a sci-fi epic like this.
With another operatic score from Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) and the inclusion of some awe-inspiring action sequences filled with spectacular make-up and costume designs, like that of Doona Bae’s cyborg swordmaster taking down a giant alien spider queen (played by Jena Malone no less), Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire might just be worth a watch on Netflix even in its compromised state. If you don’t mind waiting a bit longer to see what is almost definitely going to be the better cut of the movie – which should have the missing pieces to make the pacing and story flow smoother with more developed characters – then this cut is not worth your time. If you can’t wait to dive into more of Zack Snyder’s signature slow-motion antics, then Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire is just for you.
Is this the beginning of a successful new Netflix franchise though? Right now, that seems hard to believe.