By Lucas Trevor
"Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire" starts out strong, if derivative. After some confusing voice-over narration, the camera pans down from a shot of a spaceship against a backdrop of stars to a small farming collective on an isolated moon.
We meet Kora (Sofia Boutella), a newcomer to the community. She's a hard worker, but unwilling to fully connect with her compatriots because of her mysterious past.
Into this peaceful agrarian milieu steps Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein), the leader of a battalion of storm troopers representing something called the Motherworld.
They demand tribute in the form of crops and leave soldiers behind to monitor the town's next harvest.
When the soldiers begin to assault the townspeople, Kora and a fellow farmer (Michiel Huisman) leave to recruit a fighting force for protection.
So far, so good.
From there on, the movie becomes a confusing, overstuffed and overwritten mess of world-building, lacklustre action and overly ambitious but disappointing effects work, focusing on setting up what you might call the extended Rebel Moon-iverse instead of telling a compelling (or coherent) story.
The bulk of the narrative feels like the middle of a story stretched out over two hours, with the ending lopped off. (Perhaps we're expected to wait until April, when "Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver" comes out?)
Sure, there's something of a climactic battle at the end, but it lacks an emotional pay-off.
Overall, the characters are one-dimensional as Kora travels from planet to planet recruiting badass but interchangeable volunteers.
One major character development occurs with little build-up and no real understanding of motivation.
Later, a different character is suddenly killed. Instead of an emotionally intense moment, we're left wondering: Did this person add anything to the story in the first place?
The effects-heavy film struggles to render the frame-filling planets and spaceships that appear throughout, frequently looking no better than a well-done video game cut scene.
In the final action sequence, the CGI is quite poor, indistinguishable from a cheap Disney Plus show.
But the real problem with "Rebel Moon", whose story is taken directly from "Seven Samurai" – or at least the first half of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 epic – is structure.
Every major story thread is left dangling. "Moon" has lots of set-up but no resolution, treading water for most of its overlong running time.
It also has the artistic fingerprints of Zack Snyder – a populist auteur more akin to Michael Bay than Wes Anderson – all over it: the human form, shot in slow motion; extreme colour grading in fully computer-generated environments; and compositions that feel ripped from a comic book. (Snyder serves as director, co-writer, producer and cinematographer here.)
Over the course of the film, all the slo-mo and visceral violence – used not to define action but to highlight individual movement, preventing the scenes from having any spatial context – becomes grating.
Every action scene is shot the same way, and the shock loses its effectiveness as it is recycled.
Coupled with the film's frequently stagnant plot, his oppressive style results in an experience that somehow becomes simultaneously droll and monotonous.
The result is excitement without weight, contributing to a lack of clear stakes that the film suffers from throughout.
It's worth comparing the film to "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope", from which Snyder takes his aesthetic cues. At each turn, it feels like the filmmaker is trying to one-up George Lucas, to deliver a version of the first Star Wars film on steroids.
But "Moon" frequently falls short, like a picture of a picture, mimicking images and character types but failing to capture the heart and magic of its predecessor.
It's a film stripped of joy and whimsy, instead pursuing a tone of self-seriousness. Would it kill him to put a single joke in?
Ultimately, "Rebel Moon" is an ambitious failure. It attempts to portray a world that is massive and teeming with life but just comes across as small and empty.
∎ "Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire" is streaming on Netflix.