‘Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire’ Review: A Battle Beyond the Stars For the Streaming Generation
In 1980, Roger Corman decided to draft off on the massive popularity of Star Wars by producing his own sci-fi epic. He cobbled together a couple million bucks and some recognizable actors and made Battle Beyond the Stars. Since George Lucas drew inspiration for his movie from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Corman’s team turned their knockoff of Lucas into a knockoff of Kurosawa as well. But instead of The Hidden Fortress, Battle Beyond the Stars took its cues from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire is Battle Beyond the Stars on a Star Wars budget. (Netflix spent a reported $160+ million on the project, which consists of one four-hour movie split into two parts.) Snyder supposedly conceived it as a pitch for his own Star Wars movie; when that didn’t pan out, he reworked Rebel Moon as its own sci-fi fantasy story. However he hatched the idea, he also blatantly copied the plot of Seven Samurai — or at least the first half of it — for A Child of Fire, which follows a brave woman from a backwater planet as she assembles a team of warriors to defend her home from the menacing forces of the “Motherworld.”
A Child of Fire runs a little over two hours and absolutely plays like the very long first act of a larger story; the whole thing consists of a convoluted fetch quest to gather these heroes one by one. Each hails from a different moon or space colony with its own distinct aesthetic. One looks like a full-on Kurosawa film; the next mimics a dusty frontier Western; another apes the cyberpunk grunge of Blade Runner, and so on.
Snyder’s craft is evident all these otherworldly locales and their peculiar denizens. (He served as his own cinematographer, and did a pretty good job of it.) The Blade Runner planet introduces a space ronin named Nemesis (Doona Bae) as she does battle with an enormous spider woman (Jena Malone) who uses her spindly legs as massive stabbing weapons — a nightmarish concept that’s very effectively executed. Nemesis and the rest of the mercenaries’ main adversary is a space Nazi named Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), who relaxes between bouts of interplanetary genocide by recharging his body via Cronenbergian ports scattered around his torso. Hoses connected to a big receptacle pour some sort of restorative goop into his muscular frame, another really striking sci-fi image.
The constant changes in location, along with all this interesting character and production design, means Rebel Moon is never boring to look at. It’s everything else in Rebel Moon that’s boring. The characters are all generic stock types from other stuff: The mysteriously endowed hero who fell out of the sky (Sofia Boutella’s Kora); the fallen general searching for redemption (Djimon Hounsou’s Titus); the charming smuggler with a heart of gold (Charlie Hunnam), and so on. The actors all look great but bring nothing new or memorable to the table. And just when Kora puts her magnificent seven together, the film abruptly stops.
There are brief flashes of excitement, but Rebel Moon’s pacing is really rough; during the introduction of Kora’s farming colony, there’s a walk-and-talk conversation about grain harvests between Noble and the colony’s leader (Corey Stoll) that feels like it goes on for at least 10 minutes. Do they have a surplus? Do they not have a surplus? When will the harvest be ready? Will they give the Motherworld the surplus? It’s kind of surprising the harvest isn’t done by the end of this endless scene.
The story takes so many digressions, and adds a lot of characters who seem superfluous; presumably some of these elements will feel more important after Rebel Moon — Part Two next year. For now, you just have to take it on faith that the oddly sympathetic Imperial robot Jimmy (voiced by Anthony Hopkins) is hanging around for a reason, because he’s really not in this one. And even with all the pauses for flashbacks to Kora’s tragic backstory, we still don’t know her full motivations for taking up this unwinnable fight after more than two hours of movie.
Again; this will all surely be explained in the second film. But as its own separate experience, Rebel Moon — Part One is deeply unsatisfying. For that reason, if you are interested in it, I think it may be worth waiting until the second film premieres on Netflix in April and you can watch them both as one big marathon viewing.
Any time Snyder ratchets things up into action mode, he immediately ratchets things back down with his now-signature use of relentless slow-motion. As with the rest of Rebel Moon, the results are visually impeccable and dramatically stilted. If you are really into considering the abstract beauty of a clump of sand pinwheeling through the air for 10 seconds, you’ll get all you could possibly want out of this picture. (That happens several times.) If what you prefer in an action setpiece is kinetic excitement or investment in the characters and their goals, this is really not that kind of movie.
Instead, Rebel Moon is the kind of movie that seems overwrought and underbaked all at once. So much care has been given to the style and the design of every little element of the sets, the costumes, and the props; yet so little concern has been given to populating all those background elements with fleshed-out human beings with lives that feel like they exist beyond the edges of Snyder’s immaculately composed frames. (The inevitable Art of Rebel Moon book with all of Snyder’s concept sketches and storyboards will probably be a more satisfying experience than the film itself.)
While I saw Rebel Moon projected in 70mm on a print that had the muted colors and soft details of a print that had been sitting in storage for decades — as if it was a forgotten blockbuster that had been unearthed and re-released — it may actually play better on Netflix. At home, you can half-watch the legitimately impressive visuals while doing chores or looking at your phone. In that context, the fact that the story is cobbled together from countless earlier movies might actually be a plus. If you’ve seen the films Rebel Moon mimics, you’ll be able to follow what’s happening without taking your attention away from folding laundry.
-Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire is not only an unwieldy title, it’s kind of vague. Who is the “Child of Fire”? I assume Kora, but no one ever refers to her that way — although someone does call her “The Scargiver” (the subtitle of Rebel Moon — Part Two) and at one point she refers to herself as “a child of war.” Did Netflix’s algorithm decide that viewers don’t like war movies and recommend a more flowery alternative?
-By the way: Battle Beyond the Stars kind of outperforms its craven origins, thanks in large part to a script by John Sayles and special effects by an enterprising young filmmaker by the name of James Cameron. It’s currently on Peacock; you may want to check it out.