Make it through the entirety of Netflix’s new sci-fi adventure Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire, and you’ll be greeted with the five most horrifying words in the English language: “Director of Photography: Zack Snyder.”
After his studio career of machismo excess and sepia stylism ground to a halt in the wake of his departure from Justice League, the man behind Man of Steel and Watchmen was resurrected by the powers that be at Netflix. After shooting and lensing 2021’s Army of the Dead for the streamer, he produced its prequel, Army of Thieves, while working on Rebel Moon, a two-part movie he’d really like to see as a sprawling multimedia franchise.
It would be great to report that the first installment, Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire, heralded a bold new sci-fi epic storming onto the scene. But everyone save for the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut diehards would be better off immediately ejecting this turgid whimper of a movie into the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
I’ll admit I went into my screening with a bit of masochistic glee, ready to be shoved into the usual Snyder-orchestrated blender of digitally enhanced fight sequences, slo-mo, and bared heroic abs. I’m not immune to the charms of this polarizing auteur’s filmography: For all his faults, he’s been one of the only superhero-movie directors actually attempting to bring the visual language of comic books to the big screen. For every 10 ponderous, bombastic moments of drudgery in his oeuvre, he’s offered at least one grace note of magnificently realized splash-page maximalism. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that he’d deliver a space fantasy with the right kind of pop-art flair.
Alas, left to his own devices — and without a collaborative DP to bring his flights of fancy to dramatic, heavily aestheticized life — A Child of Fire is not only a bore, it’s a shoddy-looking one. Even though this is a movie featuring Corey Stoll sporting a thick brogue and braided beard, Anthony Hopkins voicing a kindly robot that wears a cute little crown of flowers, and Doona Bae fighting a murderous spider-lady played by Jena Malone, the results are still surprisingly dull. It’s a tedious parade of character introductions and planet hopping that’s so nakedly beholden to the Star Wars franchise that its greatest tension is in whether there will be an eleventh-hour reveal of Baby Yoda.
The plot, such as it is — scripted by Snyder and two of his past writing partners, Shay Hatten and Kurt Johnstad — centers on a farm girl with a mysterious past, because that’s how it went with Luke Skywalker. When her home planet is invaded by the Imperium, the army of the dictatorial Motherworld, Kora (Sofia Boutella) must flee and assemble a band of warriors to combat the forces of evil, Seven Samurai style.
She teams up with a roguish scoundrel she meets at an alien cantina (Charlie Hunnam, lilting so much, you fear he’ll take flight), and a potential love interest with ties to the rebellion (Michiel Huisman, one of two Daario Naharis actors on hand). There’s a shadowy Palpatine-esque figure, Regent Balisarius (Fra Fee), and a typical stuffed-shirt Space Nazi called Atticus Noble, played by Ed Skrein. He’s the type of mincing henchman who whispers, “You’re free,” to a hostage, just before stabbing them in the neck. Y’know, bad-guy stuff.
To be fair, Snyder has never been our greatest architect of interiority. His takes on Clark Kent in Man of Steel or King Leonidas in 300 are more about iconography than depth. A generous way to phrase it would be that he trades in archetypes, while a more critical lens might suggest his characters are little more than action figures for him to toss around at will on battlefields.
In a movie with one or two chief characters, this might at least be a passable way to proceed. But as his ensemble grows, the already faint character sketch of Kora recedes. The two more intimate moments she is given are arbitrarily placed bits of exposition dumping about her past, illustrated by a series of overwrought, gauzy flashbacks. When Snyder cuts back to Kora, she states helpfully, “I’m only telling you this so you know who I am.”
The warriors Kora assembles to defend her home don’t have much characterization, either. Kora flies from planet to planet collecting them; meanwhile, they’re each given one scene to show who they are. (For the most part: They’re fighters who fight.) But most of Part One’s run time has been exhausted by the time the gang is finally assembled, and a final battle does little to demonstrate what their individual talents bring to the table.
The genericness feels like a mere annoyance when it relates to the bare-chested Tarzan-esque blacksmith Tarak (Staz Nair) or Furiosa wannabe Devra Bloodaxe (Cleopatra Coleman). But when Snyder casts two-time Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou as a character named General Titus, only to utterly waste him, the thinness of the script feels like a glaring problem. And Sense8 star Doona Bae, playing Nemesis, a cyborg in Elphaba chic, instantly conjures up memories of the far more gonzo, soulful, poetic space operas created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Alas, Snyder isn’t the Wachowskis, nor is he George Lucas. Here, the force he most closely resembles is his own creation, Balisarius, the fascistic über-villain who is said to relish nothing more than the “ecstasy of combat.” This should come as no surprise for the man who made 300 and Sucker Punch, but even those films’ action sequences might bristle at the level of visual ineptitude in Snyder’s Child of Fire cinematography.
The combat is hack and slash, rinse and repeat, as Snyder goes from fast to slow motion — and on one occasion, from slow motion to slower motion. Whether we’re on the world of Veldt or Gondeval, whether the combatant is massive mercenary Darrian Bloodaxe or the lean and lithe Tarak, the fighting style is the same, the bloodless carnage the main concern. After one fight scene, Nemesis solemnly tells Kora, “Do not celebrate this. There is no honor in this.” But despite the joylessness on display, we’re always aware of the subtext: Snyder loves making guns go pew and spaceships go boom.
The director’s juvenile streak extends to an early scene involving the attempted sexual assault of a minor character, the kind of cheap “rape as the denotation of villainy” trope I’d hoped we’d left behind in season 5 of Game of Thrones. If that doesn’t do it for you, there’s also a predatory gay alien creep who gets his comeuppance when Hunnam shoots him in the back of the head, a shocking bit of homophobia from a filmmaker whose camera fixates on the male form more than most softcore gay porn.
The best that can be said about Snyder is that he’s at least capable of a kind of manic brouhaha that’s not unbecoming in this kind of genre filmmaking. Despite the lack of character or emotion in his films, he certainly can be one of the best filmmakers at capturing the pure excess of a piece of lurid fantasy art, or the distinct flair of a Frank Miller drawing. But in Child of Fire, the results couldn’t even be called stylish. The CGI seems to degenerate as the running time goes on. The production and costume design had this Dune agnostic bumping that film up half a star on Letterboxd. And Tom Holkenborg’s score sounds like Space Enya.
It’s a bummer to have to dunk so hard on a brand-new piece of fantasy nerddom, delivered just in time for the holidays. But try as he might, Snyder just can’t match the archetypal sincerity or the outlandish imagination of the films he’s trying to emulate here. Child of Fire may not be his worst film, but it’s certainly his least inspired. Thanks to those five scary words in the end credits, it’s also his worst-looking. Part Two: The Scargiver is set to be released in April 2024. What fresh hell awaits us then?
Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire debuts on Netflix at 10 p.m. ET on Dec. 21.