Every so often you spot a film character watching something on television. It’s often daft or generic fare because it’s just for the background. Rebel Moon wishes it was as good as those programmes. This is a film so charmless, derivative, and unbearably slow in pace and spectacle that it beggars belief. It doesn’t just defy entertainment – it’s the antithesis of the word.
Rebel Moon is based on an original idea from Man of Steel and 300 director Zack Snyder, although, judging from the film, you’d be forgiven for scoffing at that notion of originality. After an opening monologue from Anthony Hopkins – who details past events while a very slow spaceship crosses the screen – we meet our protagonist, Kora (Sofia Boutella), a farmhand on the planet Tatooine… sorry, Veldt. She has taken refuge in a small village in order to hide her past as a former soldier of The Motherworld, the fascist militaristic Empire that rules their galaxy. When you learn that this was originally a Star Wars pitch it all makes sense.
Kora’s new life is threatened by the arrival of Motherworld soldiers, led by the sadistic Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein). They demand grain from the village to fuel their ongoing war efforts against – you guessed it – a rebellion. Kora, after initially trying to flee, fights back against the soldiers in one of several slow-motion sequences. She then vows to gather her own army, with the help of friend Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), so that they can defend the village from The Motherworld’s inevitable retaliation. This takes her across the galaxy, where she meets many varyingly stoic characters across many varyingly depressing worlds.
The Star Wars comparisons don’t stop at the setup. Anthony Hopkins’ character is revealed to be a robot in the vein of a zealous C-3PO. Kora and Gunnar’s initial travels take them to the port town of Providence, a Mos Eisley surrogate with less upbeat jazz and more sexual predators. There they meet a mercenary named Hai (Charlie Hunham), a Han Solo wannabe complete with a grating accent. Their various recruits include Nemesis (Bae Doona), who wields samurai lightsabers, and Titus (Djimon Housou), a former general who’s taken a page from the book of Yoda by living in exile, swearing off future battles. Given that all he needs is a sanctimonious monologue to take up arms again, he can’t be that strict with his vows.
Star Wars is far from the only property Rebel Moon casually borrows from. One sequence sees the character Tarek (Staz Nair) taming an alien creature through flight, a scene that fans of James Cameron’s Avatar may recognise. Among the other aliens encountered is Jena Malone as a humanoid spider that looks like a fever-struck Racnoss from Doctor Who. Even if these similarities can be ignored or explained away, it lacks the vivacious hokeyness that made those otherwise bizarre sci-fi projects so inimitable. Rebel Moon trades that in for Snyder’s signature grittiness, and calling it miserable is a courtesy.
Taking the characters and story at face value is no help because there’s zero depth to them. The story is all set-up – a means of introducing characters and conflict so that the upcoming Part Two can do the heavy lifting in terms of resolution. There is a case to be made that Kora undergoes a character arc as someone who runs away from conflict growing to be an active leader in rebellion. But, sidelining the redundancy of this, it’s mostly conveyed through dialogue rather than action. Snyder has always had a bad habit of writing dialogue that spells out themes or feelings instead of tapping into genuine or earned emotion – Man of Steel was not an experience of Superman but a lecture on Superman. Rebel Moon makes Man of Steel look jovial. Occasionally there are some flashback visual aids, but, fundamentally, the characters in Rebel Moon aren’t characters. They’re concepts – mouthpieces to deliver boring lore, exposition, and declarations of intent, rather than human beings with complex histories or struggles.
This would be easier to swallow if the acting wasn’t consistently one note. Boutella, an underrated actor with impressive credits (Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond), delivers a performance almost entirely of bland frowns, glares and snarls, while the likes of Skrein and Hunham’s cartoonish efforts would be considered too silly for pantomimes. Any thematic power – like solidarity or redemption – that could be gleaned from this shallow script rings hollow because the importance of the characters and messaging is dictated to us instead of experienced through the filmmaking medium.
When action does occur it’s some of the ugliest imagery put to sci-fi. While there is some creative set designs, the lighting is overwhelmingly murky, and the colour palette is often various shades of beige. When CGI is utilised, such as in an image of Kora working the land to the backdrop of a huge planet in the sky, it may look appealing when stationary, but the illusion wears off with movement, such as in the case of Malone’s creature. The action is choreographically shambolic, and the obnoxious reliance on slow-motion somehow makes it messier in how it forces us to bask in the movie’s faux angst. It makes an already painfully long geek show even longer. Some of the framing is so poor that the backgrounds, such as in the Providence bar when Kora punches a customer, look like a 144p YouTube video. Despite the $166 million budget (shared with the impending Part Two), the visuals are polluted with such a need to appear brooding that it’s often hard to make out what’s happening. Snyder served as his own cinematographer, as well as director and co-writer. As such, it’s hard to place the blame at anyone else’s feet.
Zack Snyder seems like a genuinely affable man who’s passionate about his work. But Rebel Moon is one of the year’s worst films. Maybe at one point this was an exciting, thematically rich space opera. Part Two may still capture this vision. But whatever happened between then and now has left its mark, resulting in an audiovisual atrocity with hackneyed storytelling, superficial characterisation, and repulsive craftsmanship with neither charm nor awe of its own, or of the properties that it rips off.
Fans of Snyder have already argued, some without even seeing the current film, that the extended director’s cut, due in April, will fix any and all problems. This is a pipe dream, for Rebel Moon’s issues are due to its fundamental core, not an absence of additional slow-motion or pretentious monologues. A better fix would be to take inspiration from Groucho Marx by cutting the film reels up into guitar picks. That way they can at least keep the few moments of pretty imagery.
Rebel Moon is now streaming on Netflix
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Shay Hatten (Based on a story by Zack Snyder)
Starring: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Skrein, Michiel Husiman, Bae Doona, Ray Fisher, Charlie Hunham, Anthony Hopkins
Runtime: 134 minutes