Review: In Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire, Zack Snyder Goes Inter-Galactic, with Plenty of Slo-Mo and Special Effects

If I’m understanding the stories behind the creation of the latest opus from filmmaker Zack Snyder, it was conceived as a possible Star Wars movie. For whatever reason, that didn’t work out, so he retooled it (emphasis on “tool”) into what is now a two-part science-fiction adventure tale, Rebel Moon, the first part of which is subtitled Part One: A Child of Fire. Personally, I love the idea of Snyder casting his overly serious, effects-heavy aesthetic gaze over a Star Wars movie, but for those of you bummed out that that film never saw the light of day, don’t worry: there’s still plenty of familiar plot and character elements contained within A Child of Fire to satiate many a Star Wars fan…maybe. But even more so, the film borrows heavily from a handful of Akira Kurosawa movies, the ones that served as a heavy inspiration for Star Wars as well. In other words, you’re either going to really love all of these visual and plot touchstones, or you’re going to be furious with them.

The film begins on the farming planet Veldt, where a young woman named Kora (Sofia Boutella) crash-landed a few years earlier and was taken in by the peaceful residents, including the community’s leader (Corey Stoll) and the man she ultimately farms with, Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), who is clearly in love with her. She seems disinterested in attachments, even in a place where having sex to inspire a good harvest is encouraged among the entire population, partly because of her mysterious past. We’re given an elaborate backstory among the state of the universe and the various sides waging war for supremacy via a narration from Anthony Hopkins. We first think he is just a narrator, but we soon find out he is an ancient mechanized protector named Jimmy who has lost its will to fight when its king was killed.

Before long, a garrison led by Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein, in full reptile mode), an emissary of the tyrannical Regent Balisarius (Fra Fee), arrives on the planet in search of a steady supply of food. At first, he demands whatever surplus this planet might have, but then he simply demands everything, leaving Kora in a position to save those who rescued her from certain death. They are given only a couple months to pull together their harvest, and a small detachment from the so-called Motherworld is left behind to harass and make sure the farmers give up all of what they harvest. Kora ends up killing most of them in an attempt to save someone from being brutalized by the enemy, but doing so forces her and Gunnar to leave the planet to scour the galaxy in search of fellow protectors to help save their planet, thus kicking off this particular space scavenger hunt.

The details of the rest of the story are unimportant since most of the film has Kora and whoever happens to be with her hopping from planet to planet, space station to space station, looking for those hurt by the Motherworld, eventually leading her to a group of insurgents (the rebels in question) known as the Bloodaxes, led by the brother and sister team of Darrian and Devra (Ray Fisher and Cleopatra Coleman). On their journey, they meet up with a pilot and gun for hire named Kai (Charlie Hunnam); the fallen General Titus (Djimon Hounsou), a legendary commander; master swordswoman Nemesis (Doona Bae); Tarak (Staz Nair), a captive with a regal past and a gift with animals; and Milius (E. Duffy), a somewhat generic resistance fighter. The group fight together, sacrifice for one another and eventually stage a massive battle against Noble and his army.

In true Zack Snyder fashion, the battles are massive, the use of special effects (most of them quite impressive) is constant, and the slow motion button is pushed frequently. Also, the image on screen is often murky, which for a story this epic shouldn’t be the case. Make it look timeless, and not like the film was shot on parchment. An accomplished dancer before turning to acting, Boutella’s ability to handle complicated choreography is on full display in some of her fantastic fight sequences, and the film’s adherence to the plot of The Seven Samurai is admirable, I suppose.  There are no real issues with the story being told here, and I do like that Snyder is taking on an actual space adventure story in a time when they are in short supply outside of a superhero framework. It’s more about the way Snyder tells his stories visually that is the issue, and so much of this story is clearly lifted from other, better movies, that it’s tough not to feel let down.

I found myself laughing at parts of Rebel Moon, sometimes at moments that I think are meant to be funny (Skrein’s uniforms, which are clearly modeled after Nazi-wear, are so ridiculous, I dare you not to stifle a chuckle). But for the most part, I was inspired by this movie to re-watch other films. It’s not a complete disaster, and I’m a little curious how Part 2 finishes the story that basically comes to a definitive conclusion (no cliffhangers here), but A Child of Fire is largely a whiff.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.