Love him or hate him, Zack Snyder is the undisputed king of what can only be classified as a “trailer moment.” In his latest effort, Rebel Moon, those moments are myriad, complete with the speed-ramped, stylized violence that made Snyder the most divisive auteur of the 21st century. As with his previous efforts, Snyder paints the world of Rebel Moon in big, bombastic strokes. The characters therein aren’t fully fleshed-out beings so much as they are vessels for this supersized, galaxy-spanning legend-in-the-making. Rebel Moon infamously started off as Snyder’s pitch for an earnest, R-rated Star Wars story, and in the broad strokes, the film plainly evokes the galaxy far, far away. But despite its well-publicized Star Wars parallels, Snyder’s sci-fi epic is still very much its own thing.
Rebel Moon is a melting pot of modern myth, cherry-picking some of our most recognizable legends to craft a tale that’s stately, sexy, and fiercely entertaining. Snyder & co. have clearly done their homework in crafting this new, original world, and it shines best in the tactility of its worldbuilding — if only it slowed down long enough to relish in it.
Rebel Moon is already long. The film’s been split in two halves, but even Part One: A Child of Fire clocks in a smidge above the two-hour mark. That said, it manages to move at a surprisingly brisk pace. It blitzes through the history, myth, and politics of this new galaxy, ruled by an imperial force called the Motherworld. Snyder trades an opening crawl for a prologue narrated by none other than Anthony Hopkins, who paints a picture of a galaxy fraying at the seams, and an imperium working valiantly to stay on top.
Hopkins pulls double duty as a sentient robot named Jimmy. As a disgraced imperial soldier that rattles off legends to whoever will listen, he’s an easy stand-in for a droid like C-3PO. But Jimmy is also our window into this war-torn world: when he and a handful of Imperial lackeys are dispatched to the peaceful moon of Veldt, we see just how the Motherworld operates — and why the poor farmers of this realm are willing to risk their lives for even a chance at freedom.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend much time with Jimmy once Kora, Sofia Boutella’s soldier-turned-farmer-turned-rebel, embarks on her quest to defend her adopted home from a bloodthirsty imperial occupation. With Michiel Huisman’s lovelorn farm boy Gunner at her side, Kora skips from planet to planet, drafting a rag-tag army for Veldt’s incumbent battle against the Motherworld. Snyder is forever chasing the next big, rousing set piece, each of which serve as a thrilling showcase for Kora’s new recruits.
The fallen prince Tarak (Staz Nair), tames a gryphon-like beast on a sandy fly-by subplot, while Doona Bae’s Nemesis is introduced in the midst of a duel with a spider-y villain (portrayed by Sucker Punch alum Jena Malone). Each member of the ensemble is doing a whole lot with a little, but none more so than Ray Fisher’s Darrian Bloodaxe. He’s one half of the mercenary duo that Kora is working so hard to recruit — and from the moment Fisher steps into frame, it’s obvious why. Fisher was once the heart and soul of Snyder’s Justice League; the weight of the film’s emotional crux rested squarely on his shoulders. His role in Rebel Moon is only his second film to date, but Snyder’s enthusiasm for the actor certainly wasn’t misplaced. Fisher is just one of Rebel Moon’s saving graces, joining the ensemble in their efforts to tease the upcoming Part Two: The Scargiver.
But in the end, it always comes back to Kora. Sofia Boutella has long been one of Hollywood’s unsung heroines. Aside from a memorable turn in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, the Algerian actor rarely scores a role worthy of her evocative empathy and unique physicality. The stars have aligned in Rebel Moon: Kora is Frodo Baggins, John Wick, and Luke Skywalker combined, equal parts wounded pathos and feral grit.
As with the rest of the ensemble, we don’t learn that much about Kora. What little backstory we do get serves as a shorthand for a well-worn fantasy trope, that of a weary war dog that fears nothing but the loss of those she loves. Every moment spent in her past will make you wish that Rebel Moon could slow down, even for a moment, and give its characters more room to breathe. Is it naive to hope for more than a passing glance into Kora’s inner world, and the worlds of those she rallies to her cause? Probably. Given Rebel Moon’s role as a modern myth, Snyder’s gaze is clearly trained more on the galaxy around them — but that isn’t always a bad thing.
The specificity of its world is one of Rebel Moon’s many selling points. No, the film is not perfect, but it more than makes up for its shortcomings with a heady sense of place. Every new pit stop wades deep into one conflict after another, fleshing out a world that’s sexier and more sinister than anything Star Wars could ever hope to be. It’s almost a shame that the film is destined for a streaming release: every shuddering sound cue and slick vignette deserves to be felt in your bones, and seen on the biggest screen possible.
Rebel Moon may come off as a blitz of interesting ideas that have yet to be fleshed out in earnest. It doesn’t help that A Child of Fire ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, effectively demanding a follow-up. The optimists among us — and yes, the Snyder bros, too — may read this first installment as an overture, its many loose threads more like a breadcrumb trail for future installments to circle back to. It’s ironic to expect more from a director that’s already synonymous with maximalism. Beneath all its spectacle, though, the Rebel Moon universe could do with a bit more context.
If Snyder has his way, A Child of Fire and The Scargiver will not be the last we see of this realm. A graphic novel is already in the works, as is a podcast and video game. The filmmaker’s enthusiasm is well-documented, but he doesn’t always get the chance to flesh out his vision to completion. (To say nothing of the SnyderVerse, Netflix’s Army of the Dead universe is similarly stalled.) If there’s one Snyder franchise that deserves a follow-up, though, it’s this. Sprawling sci-fi fantasy is already a dying breed, but Rebel Moon could be the antidote — if only it has a bit more time to develop.