PLOT: In a dark corner of the universe controlled by a Fascist regime called The Motherworld, a former soldier named Kora (Sofia Boutella) tries to escape her past by living as a simple farmer on a peaceful moon called The Veldt. When that moon is invaded by The Motherworld and her friends are threatened, Kora sets off to recruit an army of soldiers to battle with the Motherworld and end their tyranny.
REVIEW: Take Star Wars, a liberal amount of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, and Battle Beyond the Stars, and mix it in with a heavy helping of Heavy Metal (both the magazine and the film), and you end up with Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon. While a bit overstuffed (Snyder maybe made it a little too lean at just over two hours), it’s nonetheless a deliriously entertaining sci-fi epic that one could easily call the Best Star Wars Movie Never Made. It’s not a stretch to say that Rebel Moon is more fun than anything that has come out of a Galaxy Far, Far Away in quite some time.
For a long while, Star Wars, Marvel, and most other big franchises have had the handicap of relying too much on their ever-expanding mythologies. You must do your homework to enjoy the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie or TV series. Not so with Rebel Moon. Everything you need to know is set up in a quick introduction, and Snyder embraces the same simple, direct style of storytelling that made those classics I mentioned earlier in the review so exciting to watch.
While some will slam it as derivative, and one can certainly see how it was initially planned as a Star Wars movie, Snyder’s also delivered a pretty damn exciting film. It’s full of slow-motion action, heroes’ journeys (at least seven of them, actually), operatic betrayals, star-crossed romance, and everything else that defines the space opera genre. For about fifteen minutes or so, the lightning-quick pace of the storytelling is a bit overwhelming, and Snyder’s made the fastest-paced movie of his career. Still, by the time the end credits rolled, I was dying to see Part 2, The Scargiver, which Snyder promises is coming sooner rather than later.
The movie is anchored by a star-making performance by Sofia Boutella. While she’s been in loads of stuff, she’s never had this kind of showcase. Kora is a classic dark heroine, with her embracing the character’s vulnerability to give her an edge. Often, the problem with heroes in movies these days is that they’re presented as too invulnerable. There’s nothing fun about an action hero that wins every fight. Kora is more from the Sarah Connor or Ripley mold. She’s a badass, but she isn’t physically or emotionally invulnerable. This gives her action scenes extra oomph, as you don’t always know exactly what will happen during them or how she will escape.
In Boutella’s movie, she’s surrounded by a solid cast of heroes and villains, all playing these classic archetypes but with a lot of style. Ed Skrein is evil incarnate as Admiral Noble, the right-hand man to the movie’s version of Emperor Palpatine, Fra Fee’s Balisarius, with him leering in delight as he wreaks havoc across the galaxy.
Snyder’s movie is definitely more interested in its heroes than villains, though, and the collection he’s assembled here, while very much in the Magnificent Seven mode, is a fun bunch. Michiel Huisman initially plays the wimpiest of the bunch, being a peaceful farmer without any experience in war. He could have been deadly dull, but Snyder gives him solid motivation, as he has an unscrupulous side that inadvertently made his people vulnerable to The Motherworld. He also has a heroic streak that starts to come out as the movie goes on, and Snyder gives him one of the movie’s best badass moments, establishing him as a legit hero for the second film. Staz Nair plays a character heavily patterned on Charles Bronson in Magnificent Seven, while Doona Bae’s Nemesis is much like James Coburn’s character in that same movie. They play heroes with dark pasts that need redemption, with Nair looking like a Frank Frazetta illustration coming to life. Djmon Hounsou steals scenes as a former Motherworld general turned drunk. At the same time, Snyder’s fave Ray Fisher and Cleopatra Coleman play the Bloodaxes, a brother and sister pair who lead a resistance against The Motherworld.
Of course, there’s also Charlie Hunnam as the movie’s answer to Han Solo, Kai, an anti-hero whose entrance is a direct riff on the Cantina scene in Star Wars. Sporting a grill and an Irish accent, Hunnam is having a whale of a time playing a charming rogue with dubious motivations beyond cash. Again, it’s an archetype but a well-executed one.
Of the entire cast, though, the most intriguing character is one who’s barely featured in this installment but is said to be one of the leads in the next film – a robotic knight named Jimmy. Voiced by Anthony Hopkins and performed by Dustin Ceithamer, he’s part of an ancient order of robots who are no longer able to kill but finds himself able to pull the trigger when needed after developing a paternal interest in a young girl on The Veldt who soldiers attack. Next to Kora, his hero’s quest is the most affecting, and I’m eager to see the director’s cut of this, which has a lot of footage involving the character that was removed to tighten the pace.
Visually, the film is impeccably mounted (as long as you like Snyder’s style in the first place). I was lucky enough to see it on a massive theatrical screen, and it feels like Netflix has maybe erred in not giving this a more robust release, given how underwhelming this season’s crop of blockbusters is turning out to be. The score by Junkie XL is suitably epic, and the action scenes are dazzling, with the movie ending on a more satisfying note than the majority of films split in two.
While Rebel Moon isn’t perfect because Snyder is perhaps a little too liberal in pulling from his influences to make his space epic, no one can deny how much of a blast it is to watch. Granted, if you’re not already a Zack Snyder fan or don’t like his style, this isn’t the movie for you. But, if you like his work, Rebel Moon is one of his better movies and a nifty start to what could be a very valuable franchise for Netflix.