Off Brand Space Epic

Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire

Oh, Zack Snyder. Any time his name comes up in conversation I get this weird feeling in my brain. Part of it is dread as his movies are, by and large, all the same: loud, slow-mo, glossy wrecks with very little in the way of story. Once you’ve seen one or two Snyder movies you’ve seen them all. He has the directorial style, and attention span, of a child dosed up on Mt Dew and Pixie Sticks. No action sequence is complete without more of everything. Bigger, louder, dumber. And that also applies to his politics, which he heavy-handedly works into every movie he makes. Bad gender dynamics, Ayn Randian messages, and a whole lot of gruff men making gruff noises at other gruff men. Because men!

And yet, there is a small part of my brain, that lizard part, that delights at watching the next Snyder train wreck. Not because it’ll be good, mind you, but because I know it’ll be bad. There’s a consistent badness to his films, an awful, horrible, wretchedness that actually makes his films entertaining to watch. My mind automatically fills in with Mike and the Bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000, gleefully mocking everything on screen as yet another slow-mo action sequence plays out. Does anything in a Snyder film matter? Is there any real message? Nope, but damn does it have a lot of big things going boom! It’s hard to hate that.

At one point Snyder was tapped to work on a Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. film. Clearly the higher-ups at Lucasfilm (and Disney) sobered up the second Snyder presented his ideas as, just as quickly as he was tapped to work on the project, Snyder’s Star Wars adventure was shelved. But for Snyder that wasn’t going to stop his vision. His ideas were too good to stay in the can so he changed some details, removed anything overtly Star Wars from his pitch, and then went over to NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it). to make his movie. He expanded it out, taking it from one movie to two and then, suddenly, we had Rebel Moon, the Zack Snyder space epic that, somehow, ties into Snyder’s cinematic universe of films (including Army of the Dead). Zack Snyder in space… and it’s exactly the film you’re expecting.

Now here’s the thing: freed of the Star Wars license, what Snyder managed to make is a generically Star Wars film in all but name. We have rebels fighting an empire that wants to tax and destroy them. This is simplified down to a single female warrior from a farming community, a former Imperial soldier (read: stormtrooper) who broke away from the Empire to lead a normal life away from war. But when the Empire comes calling, she has to step up to save the day. Now tasked with protecting the farming community, she heads out with another farmer to find a group of rebels that will stand up and fight the Empire together. And, of course, there’s a lot of fighting and explosions and slow-mo. It feels like Star Wars as directed by Zack Snyder, just with the VIN scratched off so the DIsney lawyers don’t come calling.

What’s amazing isn’t how much like Star Wars it feels, although it really does (you could see this as part of the Star Wars: Visions series, frankly). What’s truly astounding is how bereft of any original ideas Zack Snayder was when creating this film. His grand vision is basically Seven Samurai or Magnificent SevenRiding into battle to defend western towns from the scourge of bandits, the Magnificent Seven have had made adventures (and many teams) across its long and storied franchise. by way of Star Wars (which, of course, those films were inspiration for Star Wars). Rebels fighting to protect a town threatened by bad guys is a tale so old we could make an entire genre about it. The whole of this first part of Rebel Moon, which will have a second half later this year, is basically the first half of Seven Samurai where all the samurai are recruited. Yes, sure, there are some minor twists (twists you can see coming a mile away, mind you), but for the most part all Snyder could come up with was, “what if Seven Samurai but in space!” It’s easy to see why Disney passed on that.

If we’re being kind we can at least note that the film is very handsome. Snyder was given $166 Mil to make his two-film epic and that money is pretty clearly on screen. The sets, from the desert farming moon at the start of the film, to a samurai village later, a spaceport much later, and many other smaller locales, do look good. The set design is, by and large, quite nice, with only a few obvious areas where the production team had to use CGI to fill in for backgrounds and practical sets they couldn’t find and/or build.

At the same time the special effects are nice looking as well. Much of the film is just laser guns and heated swords (like any good off-brand Star Wars) and those, along with human actors, are easier to stitch together and make pretty. There are a few aliens in the film, and for the most part they look good. A solid blending of practical effects with CGI. But then there are glaring moments where the limits of $166 Mil for two films can be seen. The most obvious was a CGI sequence where a human character rides a gryphon around to tame it. The concept is okay (if it does stand out as a weird moment in an otherwise darker sci-fi film) but the production of the scene looks awful. It’s obvious green screen on obvious CGI and nothing looks real or like it has any weight. Moments like this make you wonder if maybe not everything that came out of Zack Snyder’s trapper keeper of ideas (I assume he has a trapper keeper with stickers on it and cool doodles he’s come up with while thinking about conservative exceptionalism) needs to be committed to the screen.

But what strikes me, more than anything, is just how generic it all feels. Yes, this could have been a Star Wars: Visions episode, or even a full movie, but that’s not exactly a rousing endorsement. This film has the depth of one of those shorts, but the reason those shorts work is because they’re short films. They don’t have to invest deeply in characters or setting as they aren’t designed for long-form storytelling. We get in, we learn the idea of the short, we watch some cool action, and then we get out. Taking a concept that would work as a short (which is just me saying that’s how much depth there is to Rebel Moon) and stretching it across two films sucks all the life and energy out of the story. We don’t get a lot with the characters as they’re all flat and basic – the reformed soldier, the farmer, the smuggler, the bounty hunter, etc. – and the story that drives them is as flat as they come. It’s a bland, boring, basic story told in the standard Snyder way.

And by that I mean characters don’t say dialogue that’s necessary to themselves or their scenes. Instead they say everything flat and blunt as a way to convey all the story that Snyder has no desire to actually show us. People proclaim their thoughts and ideas and feelings in long bursts of flat dialogue just to get it out of the way. They don’t work towards hopes and dreams, they flatly declare them. We never get the sense that anyone actually cares about what they’re fighting for (good or bad), but they go through the motions because that’s the demands of this very blunt story.

This also extends to the actors. A good director can elevate a cast while a bad director can lead them to give horrible performances. Zack Synder is not a good director. Yes, he has an eye for action that tickles the lizard brains in all of us, but when it comes to characters he doesn’t really seem to care about them at all. He puts his actors in positions and then has them get through the boring bits, the dialogue, so he can then focus on the bits he cares about (explosions and slow-mo action). The film absolutely comes alive when Snyder can focus on the action, but when he has to deal with characters and getting his performance to actually, you know, act, Synder doesn’t seem to care at all. The only times his actors give good performances is when they take the initiative themselves. Corey Stoll is vibrant in a small role as the village leader for the farming community. Ed Skrein chews a ton of scenery as the Imperial goon Atticus Noble. And Charlie Hunnam gets to be slimy and fun for a few short scenes as the smuggler Kai. None of these people are the main characters, and all of them are as throw-away as they come.

The rest of the cast? Who knows and who cares. They’re awful and that, frankly, is all Snyder’s fault. Their characters are flatly written (and Snyder helped write the script). Their performances are bluntly delivered. Their time on screen is wasted. They aren’t really characters at all, just roles to guide along the linear line so that Synder can get to the next action piece. Yes, the film comes alive when it focuses on its action, but it’s also hard to care about any of the action on screen when the characters participating in it are as bland as they come. Snyder thinks we’ll care about people because he puts them in cool action sequences, but in reality we need to care about the characters to care about the cool action. He has everything backwards.

Is there a grain of a good movie somewhere in this mess? Yes, and it’s called The Seven Samurai. Okay, or it’s called Star Wars. But as far as delivering a grand space epic that can be free of its bounds to tell its own story, a story that absolutely needed to be made, Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire fails to deliver. But then, it’s a Zack Snyder film, so I really didn’t expect anything else.