All the War but None of the Stars in this Star War

Rebel Moon: Part Two - The Scargiver

The second half of Zack SnyderOften reviled for the bombastic and idiotic content of his films, there is no question that what Snyder's movies lack in substance they (at least try to) balance out with flash and style, making him one of Hollywood's top directors... sadly.’s “Not 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.” just came out on Netflix, and has been met with adoration from his cult-like following and general disappointment from everyone else. I watched the first half, Rebel Moon: Part One - A Child of Fire, a couple of months back and was thoroughly underwhelmed. It was okay by the standards of a Zack Snyder movie, which meant that the action was pretty enough but it was lacking in any kind of real substance. Characters were flat, the plot was formulaic, and the attempts at twists were telegraphed so far in advance that they hardly mattered at all. If you weren’t a Snyder devotee, that following of fans he’s seemingly grown since Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, then you probably hated the first part of Rebel Moon. And this second half will not change your opinion at all.

The issue with the second half is that it is the weaker, and far more slight, portion of the story. Rebel Moon, parts one and two, is at its core a redux of The Magnificent Seven / Seven Samurai. A farming village is threatened by an evil empire, nasty near-criminals that have come to collect all of the town’s grain, leaving them with very little left after, so the town wants to rise up and fight off the empire. They send two of their people, former imperial officer Kora (Sofia Boutella) and farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), to go out and find people that can help them fight. And then, with a band of misfits and outlaws on their side, they fight off the empire. Dress it up with whatever sci-fi trappings you want, this is The Magnificent Seven.

The reason this second half suffers is because, by the bounds of the story (which part 2 doesn’t stray far from) all the cool character moments and big developments happened in the first half of the story. We were supposed to get to know these people, learn who they were, and enjoy their presence so that, by the time we get back to town and have to settle into the business of training and preparing and then fighting, most of the characters should be known quantities. Breaking this into two halves puts all the cool character introductions into the first half (which also makes that film shallow because it’s a lot of character moments without any story to follow up after) while this film has to do all the grunt work of the story without being able to devote enough time to the characters.

There is one scene, just one, where the film tries to get us to care about the characters. All of our heroes (all six, which is really not many) are sitting around a table and each of them shares their past. These are moments that could have been cool, mind you, but because they’re all told, one after another, in sequence without any breaks in between, it has the feel of a sharing circle. It’s a rote moment to get the audience to care but it lacks any passion of substance to it. And then the film forgets about all of this after and goes back to getting ready for the action.

Character moments, of course, are meant to give us insight to those characters, give us reasons to care. They’re also there, though, so that they can be referenced later. Is it important to us to know that shirtless melee fighter Tarak (Staz Nair) used to be a prince on his world before he was forced on the run after the empire obliterated his world? We already hate the empire, so more reason to hate it doesn’t really add anything, and the fact that he’s a prince has no bearing on the person we see on screen (being a prince makes you exceptional at being a shirtless melee fighter?) and it never comes up again as motivation for him later. You can apply this to each and every character around that table, save one: Kora.

Oh, Kora. She’s the worst of the set because she has so much character development around her and the film absolutely doesn’t know what to do with any of it. She was betrayed by her adoptive father, lulled into thinking he loved her so she’d do anything he asked. When he plotted an assassination of the royal family, Kora was given the task of shooting the princess (the magical girl who could save the world), and then her father turned against her, calling her a murderer and using her as the patsy for their assassination. She runs, hiding on a farming moon, remakes herself, and now is hunted by Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein). He calls her the “Scargiver”. This is all good stuff and would really matter if we cared about the royal family or that princess at all.

The only times we’ve learned anything about this magical girl princess is in two flashbacks to before she died, both of them short and neither of them giving us any sense of her actual character. She’s a thing that exists, an object to covet for her supposed power, but we don’t have a connection to her. She just… is. If the films had taken any time to develop her as a character, to make us actually care about her, then Kora’s actions in her past would have had weight and substance. Then, her guilt would mean something.

Oh, and (spoilers) then the film absolves her of all of it in its last scenes, making me wonder why this tragic backstory was given to her at all. She tries to confess her sins to her partners, but they’re like, “duh, we already knew. And don’t worry, the princess isn’t dead.” So what was the point of any of this?

The big reason why all of this falls flat is because Zack Snyder, for all his focus on action in his films, doesn’t understand character. The characters in his films are flat, dead, lifeless husks moved around like action figures so they can spout off expository dialogue and then do cool action poses. The first film gave us these heroes and then didn’t care which one of them said lines, or did action poses, so long as things looked cool. The same happens here as it doesn’t matter who lives or dies, not really, so long as people get cool action every few minutes.

One scene in this regard that stood out was (spoiler again) the death of Nemesis (Doona Bae). She’s a warrioress who cut off her own arms and then attached on cybernetic ones in their place for… reason. That part is never actually made clear. She’s cool looking though, and she has a penchant for protecting children. Which she kind of does in the action sequence that leads to her death, except there’s no soul behind it, no reason for her to die. She never talked about nobility in death, or wanting to go down in a blaze of glory. She fought, she killed, she wanted revenge. If she could kill someone high up in the empire, that was all she needed. She doesn’t. She just dies.

A better character that could have died in this instance instead was Tarak, a man who not only seemed happy to die in combat (as he says this multiple times in the two movies) but who is also looking to restore his own nobility that was stripped away by the empire. If he could have died in this fight, stopping the oppressors and striking a blow for the farmers, who would then say, “my prince, you saved us,” that would have been proper development. That would have been a call back to something that happened before. That could have added substance and meaning.

Zack Snyder doesn’t care about substance and meaning. He just cares if things blow up good.

And that’s the thing: things do blow up real good in this film. The last act is a long, protracted action sequence of the farmers battling the empire and, for the most part, it’s pretty watchable. You don’t care as much as you should because you don’t feel connected to any of the characters…

Well, okay. I did care about one: Jimmy (Anthony Hopkins), a robotic warrior with an awesome design who, in his few brief moments, shows more soul, substance, and character development than everyone else in the film. We need more Jimmy and less of everyone else.

But as I was saying, the action lacks depth, of course, because Snyder doesn’t know how to infuse that into his movies. But the action is very pretty, with lots of explosions, so much slo-mo, and a ton of big moments. The lizard brain part of me really enjoyed all the action and very much wanted it to go on for a while because it was the one interesting aspect of this film. But then the battles stopped, the remaining heroes regrouped, and the film got boring again. This film only comes alive when there’s action, and the action is only about 45 minutes of this two-hour slog. That’s a lot to sit through to make the lizard brains happy.

I understand why Netflix signed off on these films – they wanted cool action set-pieces they could put into a trailer for their service to sell people on buying subscriptions – but that doesn’t in any way make me think they wanted a good movie out of them. All they wanted was to be able to say, “we got a Zack Snyder” to lure people in. Good or bad, it’s a movie they could advertise and it’s exclusive to their service. Snyder is happy, as he got to make his Star Wars films that Lucasfilm rejected, and now that he’s done these two he’s already promising (threatening) four more. This “epic” apparently is far from over, which I’m sure will also make Netflix happy.

But for the rest of us, there’s no joy to be had here. This is a film for Snyder’s faithful and the rest of us be damned. And we will, slowly, via sheer, unending boredom.

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