Zack Snyder is a pop-fantasy filmmaker who now has a fanboy cult around him. In the two decades since he made his feature directorial debut with the grainy unsettling 2004 reboot of “Dawn of the Dead,” Snyder’s flamboyant fusion of visual wizardry, technological fixation, and kick-ass spirit has made him, at least in some quarters (read: the Comic-Con and video-game demo), a creative hero for the Age of Escapism. Fans who grew up feasting on such Snyder extravaganzas as “300,” “Watchmen,” and “Sucker Punch” then saw his much-ballyhooed entrée into the DC comic-book sphere marked by ambitious but maligned misfires. Yet in 2021, the release of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” — his uncut and quite extraordinary version of the movie that Warner Bros. had tapped Joss Whedon to mangle into an “audience-friendly” product — was a vindication that also marked a new peak of reverence for the Snyder cult.
Despite cries for other “Snyder cuts,” Warner Bros. wasn’t about to let a big-money maverick like Snyder back into the vaults. But Netflix, a studio streamer that never met a director it couldn’t throw a zillion dollars at, along with the words “Please let the film run on as long as you’d like,” rolled out the red carpet for Snyder to make “Rebel Moon,” a four-and-a-half-hour interplanetary sci-fi action spectacular that’s being released in two parts. “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire” will be given a limited theatrical run starting Dec. 15, before it drops on Netflix one week later. “Rebel Moon — Part Two: The Scargiver” is set to be released on April 19, 2024. (And — surprise! — longer R-rated versions of both films will be available to stream on Netflix at a later date.)
“Rebel Moon” isn’t based on anything; it’s a complete original. Yet in another sense it’s based on about twelve things. It’s “Stars Wars” meets “Guardians of the Galaxy” meets “The Lord of the Rings” meets “Black Panther,” all smelted down and reduced to a highly edible sauce of overfamiliar tropes, minus any semblance of a sense of humor. Movies this derivative, in my view, are inherently uncool, but you could argue that what’s almost cool about “Rebel Moon” is that it’s so unabashedly a gloss on only the 1977 “Star Wars.” It’s got a very basic rebels-vs.-the-evil-empire plot, with rubber-faced creatures and a noble stoked-with-moxie Zen fighter heroine, Kora (Sofia Boutella), who’s like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia all rolled into one.
The story begins on Veldt, a moon of Saturn (the planet looms in the background like a weirdly artificial piece of wallpaper), where Kora is part of a hearty community of medieval farmers who live in the shadow of the Motherworld. The Motherworld’s king and queen have been assassinated and replaced by vicious autocrats, who want to crush the pocket of insurgents known as the Bloodaxes. The good farmers of Veldt have sold some of their grain to the Bloodaxes, and early on they’re invaded by a Motherworld brigade led by Atticus Noble, an evil admiral who specializes in face-to-face terrorism. The British actor Ed Skrein, in his fascist-with-bangs haircut, is the best thing in the movie. He’s like Rami Malek playing Jim Carrey as Darth Vader as a Nazi out of “Cabaret.”
Kora has a thorny and rather turgid backstory (after her family was killed, she was adopted as a daughter by the Motherworld’s ominous overseer). But now, as a resident of Veldt, it’s up to her to travel to distant planets — a great many of them — to gather up…a fellowship of rebel fighters! The movie is episodic in the extreme. Here’s another planet, here’s another Colorful Character to recruit for the team, here’s another slow-mo interlude of ultraviolent combat.
Snyder, who shot the film himself, stages it on an impressively lavish scale (all the CGI sprawl a budget of $166 million can buy), and a handful of the episodes are fun, like one where the noble hunk Tarak (Staz Nair) frees himself from indentured servitude by harnassing a giant blackbird who’s like a Ray Harryhausen creature. Sofia Boutella, as Kora, holds the film together with her dour ferocity, and Djimon Hounsou (as the fallen but still noble General Titus), Charlie Hunnam (as the mercenary starship pilot Kai), and Anthony Hopkins (as the voice of Jimmy the droid, who’s like C-3PO with more acting talent) make their presence felt. Yet “Rebel Moon,” while eminently watchable, is a movie built so entirely out of spare parts that it may, in the end, be for Snyder cultists only.