‘Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire’ Review – Zack Snyder’s ‘Star Wars’ Knockoff Struggles to Find Own Identity

The Netflix franchise-starter is epic, but deeply derivative and inconsistent

Sofia Boutella stars in Zack Snyder's 'Rebel Moon'
Netflix

When George Lucas tried to get the rights to “Flash Gordon” in the early 1970s, and failed, he decided to make his own film in the style of “Flash Gordon.” The result was a movie called “Star Wars,” which has — in the nearly 50 years since its creation — spawned a lot of knockoffs of its own.

The latest, Zack Snyder’s “Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire,” came about in a similar way. Snyder famously pitched an idea for a “Star Wars” spin-off inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” When that project didn’t come together. he transformed his old pitch into a new film.

Except Lucas infused his “Flash Gordon” riff with lots of other influences, so although you can recognize the individual elements — “The Hidden Fortress,” “The Dam Busters,” “Silent Running,” etc. — “Star Wars” still feels like its own film. But Zack Snyder’s “Star Wars” riff is pretty much just “Star Wars.” Farmers going to cantinas full of weird aliens. Cocky smugglers with questionable morals who take them on their journey. Mysterious badasses with glowing swords that cut through anything. An evil empire that dresses like Nazis.

It’s “Star Wars” crossed with “Seven Samurai,” sure, but not much else and that’s also been done already with the Roger Corman-produced “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980). So nothing about “Rebel Moon” feels fresh. Competent, usually, but never fresh.

Indeed, the biggest difference is that Zack Snyder is, well, Zack Snyder. “Rebel Moon” is full of the slow-motion action sequences he’s famous for, and it’s unusually violent for a space opera. There’s an upsetting attempted sexual assault scene that throws a pall over the whole first act. And then there’s the scene where Luke Skywalker gets hassled in a bar and the retired soldier has to save him — sorry, the scene where “Gunnar” gets hassled in a bar and the retired soldier has to save him, except now it’s about a gay and physically grotesque sexual predator who won’t take “no” for an answer and gets killed instead of just getting his arm cut off.

Who is that scene for, we have to ask? Why, in a movie about saving fictional oppressed people, is there a scene that goes out of its way to present a demonic caricature of actually oppressed people? Even “Rebel Moon’s” simplistic argument that “cruelty is bad” gets undermined by the film’s insistence that cruelty is also entertainment.

“Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire” stars Sofia Boutella as Kora, a soldier with a mysterious past living a quiet life in a village full of peaceful farmers. When a giant warship from the Motherworld shows up, the gestapo-esque Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein) declares that he’s searching for rebels and he needs this one tiny town to supply his entire army with grain. He’ll return in ten weeks to collect, even if it means the farmers will starve to death.

Noble leaves behind a small squad of rapists and one pacifist robot, the latter of whom is voiced by Anthony Hopkins. The robot explains that the Motherworld was ruled by an honorable royal family, whose princess was prophesied to bring peace to the galaxy. With that royal family now dead, the robot army refuses to fight anymore, and now they just lug crates around for the human soldiers. Never mind that later in the movie we see that same king of the Motherworld in flashbacks and he’s celebrating his armies for conquering planets and committing mass murder. The film still claims he was the good guy keeping Motherworld from getting… I dunno, even eviler? “Rebel Moon’s” attitudes towards tyranny are a little inconsistent and confusing.

When Kora kills the soldiers after they try to assault a young girl — in a sequence, again, so unnecessarily disturbing you can’t help wonder why the film had to go there at all — the village is left with no choice. They’ll have to fight Noble’s army when he returns. So Kora teams up with Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), a farmer who got their leader killed because he was a greedy capitalist — but who will then be portrayed as a soulful, innocent, heroic type for the rest of movie, because again, consistency is not “Rebel Moon’s” strong suit — and sets out to enlist a group of warriors to protect the village.

What follows is a series of vignettes where Kora meets larger than life badasses who all just happen to be in the middle of pulpy situations. Tarak (Staz Nair) is trapped in indentured servitude and can’t get out unless he tames a space griffin. Nemesis (Doona Bae) is a cyborg with light sabers who had fighting a giant spider on her “to do” list that afternoon. Titus (Djimon Hounsou) is a former Motherworld general now working as a gladiator, although apparently we meet him on his day off from gladiating, which feels like a bit of a copout. Devra Bloodaxe (Cleopatra Coleman) and her brother Darrian (Ray Fisher) are rebel leaders, who seem to lack ambition in the whole “rebellion” department. And Kai (Charlie Hunnam) is literally just Han Solo.

The majority of these side quests are exciting and nifty to look at. Zack Snyder, who is also the film’s cinematographer, knows how to make an action sequence look epic, even if the climactic battle quickly loses track of where all the characters are, and then descends into spatial chaos. Still, as “Star Wars” knockoffs go, “Rebel Moon” is one of the most visually ambitious, and the visual effects creations are often genuinely interesting, although some of them are less convincingly rendered than others.

The cast is all over the place as well. Charlie Hunnam looks like he’s having fun. Djimon Hounsou looks like he’s super bored. Ed Skrein chews scenery and seems to particularly enjoy the bit where we find out his character has a tentacle fetish. But it’s Boutella who carries “Rebel Moon” on her shoulders, and once again reminds us that she’s a great action movie actor. Snyder’s space opera may not be a great action movie, but at least it’s an excellent showcase for Boutella and Hunnam, and an adequate showcase for most of the others.

“Rebel Moon – Part 1: A Child of Fire” isn’t a complete film. The story will continue and presumably conclude in the next installment. So perhaps some of this movie’s issues will be addressed later on, and “Part 1” will improve with the benefit of hindsight. Or perhaps it will look worse after the follow-up comes out, which is equally plausible. Until then it is simply what it is, and that is a hugely expensive but uninspired “Star Wars” knockoff with some thrilling action sequences, and some truly ugly moments that taint the entire thing.

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