Rebel Moon Part 1 review: Epic but dull imitator of greatness

Cameron Frew
Sofia Boutella in Rebel Moon

Try as it might, Rebel Moon doesn’t give much life to the sci-fi genre – but it may leave a scar on Zack Snyder’s filmography, earning a rare, dishonorable distinction: it’s dull

Snyder’s juice speaks for itself: echoing 28 Days Later’s manic runners, he transformed Dawn of the Dead into one of the most effective, exhilarating zombie romps of the 21st century; he brought Alan Moore’s Watchmen to life in breathtaking fashion, managing to capture its zeitgeist-slicing weight before the superhero boom tightened its grip; and for all of its critics, he gave the world a unique take on the Man of Steel, one unburdened by feeble optimism but built on hope (and some of the coolest Superman visuals put to screen). 

But he’s also a victim of his own ultra-specific, unavoidable visual style; a gluttony of slick, crying-to-be-screenshotted visuals that evoke awe and little else, and when that jaw starts to close, what’s left but a closed mouth and boredom? 

Given his carte-blanche relationship with Netflix, Rebel Moon should have been unfiltered Snyder; all of his worst traits, but everything that makes him an essential voice. Alas, excluding a few gnarly and grin-worthy flourishes, this new franchise is DOA; at its core, it’s ineffectual. 

Rebel Moon starts on a Moon… with a Rebel 

A faraway (but not far, far away) galaxy is governed by the Motherworld, the vengeful government and remnants of the monarchy whose king and princess were slain by a rogue assassin. With the royal bloodline severed forever, the Imperium’s Balisarius (Fra Fee) crowns himself regent in the king’s wake and deploys Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) to the outer reaches to crush “those who call themselves… Rebel.”

Meanwhile, Kora (Sofia Boutella), a child of war who escaped endless conflict after crash-landing on a moon, fights to earn peace by farming, smiling, and courting the possibility of love – even though she thinks she doesn’t deserve it. Her sanctuary is soon invaded by an Imperium dreadnought, crashing through its clouds and looming above anything and everything with its enormous gaze. Soon, the villagers find themselves under the admiral’s thumb, forcing Kora to seek out willing warriors across the known universe who can stand against the oppressors. TL;DR: Seven Samurai in space. 

Their rallying call takes them all across the cosmos, running into the likes of Kai (Charlie Hunnam), a mercenary enamoured with Kora’s cause, Tarak (Staz Nair), a nobleman-turned-slave with a knack for looking buff and calming animals, General Titus (Djimon Hounsou), a disgraced Imperium general… at least in their eyes, and Nemesis (Doona Bae), a cyborg swordsmith armed with what a friend described as “light-wielders” – but not lightsabers. Ray Fisher and Cleopatra Coleman also appear as burly, super-serious rebel leaders, while Anthony Hopkins voices Jimmy, a royal droid who clearly has a much larger role in the story than we know. 

Rebel Moon already feels diluted

Knowing that Snyder has a longer, harder R-rated cut of Rebel Moon is a curse on the film. An R-rating isn’t a guarantee of quality, and there should be a space for sweeping, bruising action blockbusters on a PG-13 level (The Hunger Games did it) – but here’s the thing: the movie is clearly shot and envisioned as a violent space opera, with action awkwardly, frustratingly neutered in aid of a family-friendly-ish viewing experience, some scattered teeth aside. It feels like watching the TV edit of Saturday Night Fever first – in other words, wrong.

Even the fact that a director’s cut – which will likely be a fuller, more authentic representation of Snyder’s ambitions, for better or worse – exists and has been promoted before the first edit of the film’s release feels like a cheap nod to his loyalists (“if you don’t like this, you’ll love this!”). His infamous Justice League cut is a key chapter of his history behind the camera, but this veers close to defining him in a rather trite way. 

Charlie Hunnam as Kai, Michiel Huisman as Gunnar, Sofia Boutella as Kora, Staz Nair as Tarak and Djimon Hounsou as Titus in Rebel Moon

That, and the whole story and the majority of its set pieces feel empty and derivative (one sequence, albeit constructed with impressive VFX, is pretty much just a mash of Harry Potter and Avatar), yet its world-building is overwhelming; we hop from world to world with a vague understanding of the stakes (the Empire vs Rebels stuff is impossible to miss), but we meet strange and lightly sketched characters and hear baffling lore that’s filed under “you better remember this later” when we’ve barely grasped it in the first place. 

The villains, between Skrein’s baddie who’s somewhere between a Nazi, Peaky Blinder, and Gavin Shipman (admittedly, he has quite a bit of fun with his performance), and the Imperium foot soldiers who threaten rape out of macho boredom, are also just… a bit boring. 

It’s not all bad

While it rarely feels truly immersive, with its often ugly landscapes and enormous VFX backgrounds (one scene of a wheat field looks directly lifted from 300, and not in a good way), there are some incredible effects: a Buckbeak-esque creature is vividly realized, and Hopkins’ Jimmy steals each brief scene he’s in, reminiscent of The Creator’s seamless visual integration of AI bots with ordinary people. There’s a standout scene with a large spider that raises Snyder as a possible candidate for a Soulsbourne movie – keep that in mind. 

Boutella, excusing her yawn-infecting dialogue, is a capable and highly watchable lead, but Hunnam is the only star around her capable of meeting the demand; for the most part, this is a movie full of good-looking people who aren’t very interesting to watch, and the script doesn’t do them any favors. 

Synder’s eye is a bit tiresome, but you’d be hard-pressed to criticize his cinematography – it’s the editing that’s the problem, with shots in short scenes resembling more of an ooh-and-ahh slideshow than the synergy required for telling an effective story. Fortunately, a trusty collaborator delivers the goods: Junkie XL is on score duties again, and his booming composition – while not especially re-listenable – maintains a much-needed air of grandeur that the movie doesn’t necessarily deserve. 

Rebel Moon Part 1 review score: 2/5

Rebel Moon is just a load of slow-mo stuff you’ve seen before with added melodrama; a pale imitator that fails to forge its own space in the legacy of big-screen sci-fi. 

Rebel Moon is in cinemas now, and it’ll premiere on Netflix on December 22. You can check out our interview with the cast here.

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