Review: Zack Snyder's 'Rebel Moon' is a joyless jumble of rehashed sci-fi fare

Rebel Moon
Zack Snyder’s $166 million sci-fi saga, 'Rebel Moon: Part One — A Child of Fire' began streaming on Netflix on Dec. 21, 2023. (Image credit: Netflix)

"A good conscience is a continual Christmas," Benjamin Franklin once wrote. So it's with a heavy heart and a liberated soul that I cannot honestly recommend the new Netflix space fantasy, "Rebel Moon: Part One — A Child of Fire," to anyone but the most hardcore of Zack Snyder acolytes.

And that pains me as a serious admirer of Snyder's previous work on sci-fi and fantasy features like "Dawn of the Dead," "300," "Watchmen," "Man of Steel," "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," and "Justice League." However, "Rebel Moon," with its DNA firmly buried in the "Star Wars" sandbox, cliched B-movie westerns, and Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," is a shockingly sadistic, cruel, and mean-spirited affair that wears out its welcome 10 minutes in.  

Deluged by dreary exposition dumps and slow-motion sequences galore (one even showing particles of falling grain), the first half of a two-part, $166 million saga launched into a limited theatrical run before dropping onto the streaming titan on Dec. 21 dragging a trail of harsh early reviews. Alas, even the most optimistic of fans and journalists are powerless to shift the balance of truth on this grim, disappointing project.

Related: Everything we know about 'Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire'

It stars Sofia Boutella as Kora, Staz Nair as Tarak, Charlie Hunnam as Kai, Michiel Huisman as Gunnar, Doona Bee as Nemesis, Djimon Hounsou as Titus, Ray Fisher as Darrian Bloodaxe, Cleopatra Coleman as his sister Devra, Fra Free as Regent Balisarius, Ed Skrein as the crazed Admiral Noble, and Anthony Hopkins voicing an old imperial android named Jimmy.

Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery. But in Snyder's overindulgent hands, it becomes a poison pill infecting every minute of the film's overlong 135-minute runtime. "Rebel Moon" is cobbled together with disparate plot conventions liberally borrowed from far better Hollywood products and cardboard stock characters straight out of central casting. 

The performances are unlikely to win any statues and are mostly of the two-dimensional archetypal variety at best. Boutella portrays her "freedom fighter with a destiny" role with adequate energy, especially in the time-dilated fight sequences. But it's all surface-level emoting that never quite catches fire. Hunnam's rough-and-tumble space pilot is strictly a generic Han Solo spin, though he does provide a few amusing moments. 

Nemesis and Gunnar from "Rebel Moon: Part One — A Child of Fire." (Image credit: Photo by Clay Enos/Netflix)

Even the great Hounsou seems to be sleepwalking through his delivery amid the dirge of lifeless dialogue. At least Boutella seems to be having some fun in her role as the mysterious farmer who corrals a group of mercenaries and assassins to help her peaceful homeworld moon fend off a fascist commander from the greedy reach of the Motherworld and its vaudevillian villains.

Netflix hoped "Rebel Moon" would be its answer to the "Star Wars" empire, which has plummeted from grace of late, and the endeavor actually had its genesis as a discarded Lucasfilm pitch from Zack Snyder a long time ago. It was retooled into an original screenplay purged of all references to the galaxy far far away, but with its bare derivative bones still glaringly exposed.

Whether it evolves into a transmedia success with comic books, animated specials and tie-in novels remains to be seen, given the movie's cold reception. Its humorless, self-serious screenplay was penned by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten, and the cookie-cutter plot seems as overstuffed as a Christmas goose devoid of any old-fashioned charm or nostalgic exuberance. Snyder's own uninspired cinematography aims for an ugly, color-drained palette, which only amplifies the film's hollowed-out attempt at a samurai space western spectacle.

Sophia Boutella in "Rebel Moon: Part One — A Child of Fire." (Image credit: Netflix)

There's nothing here that viewers haven't seen in countless Hollywood films and TV series over the decades, from "Star Wars," "Game of Thrones," "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" to "Firefly," "Avatar," vintage spaghetti westerns and numerous Kurosawa samurai epics. If you're a card-carrying Snyder fan, you're going to be semi-satiated visually, but those of a more discriminating nature might want to rethink their viewing choices.

"Rebel Moon" is not totally unwatchable, but this is no rousing, family-friendly space opera engineered to provide fun entertainment to the masses while a yule log crackles in the fireplace — not with its disturbing scenes of rape and cranium-bashing brutality.

The film's final image — of Jimmy, the Anthony Hopkins-voiced robot, in a field wearing a set of antlers — and the brief teaser for the sequel point to perhaps a much sunnier tonal style for "Rebel Moon: Part Two — The Scargiver," which comes out in April. But you might not be too keen to see it after sitting through part one.

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.

  • Sweenster89
    My partner and I actually really enjoyed this film over Christmas. I am surprised to see this review slating it so badly. I look forward to watching part 2 when it comes out.
  • Radboud
    For a movie that is really not intended to be family friendly and fun, I think it captures the dark and gritty rebellion against a fascist government pretty good actually. I liked it very much and can't wait to see part 2.
    Also, to say it is nothing new is a bit too much, as there are very few movies or screenplays at large that do something completely new. I think this movie actually goes against many mainstream plots and arcs. Yes it is about a "saviour"/"rebel leader", but there are many movies that have this present across all genres. I think it is a bit harsh to call it a star wars rip-off, because then you should call all sci-fi movies either rip-offs of Star Trek or Star Wars.