Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire (2023) dir. Zack Snyder

A space opera gone operatic


Rebel Moon. Jimmy (Performed by Dustin Ceithamer/Voiced by Anthony Hopkins) in Rebel Moon. Cr. NETFLIX ©2023

With his second Netflix film, Zack Snyder has found a production company willing to meet the liberty his vision commands. The first go around with Netflix and the second and more ambitious of his zombie-busters, Army of the Dead (2021), was his first time serving as his own cinematographer and, while his visual prowess and distinct style impress, the picture felt rushed (a character disappears without mention) and more like an exercise in preparation for something bigger. And that something bigger is Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire, the first of a two part film. 

Rebel Moon was originally conceived of as a Star Wars film but, freed from the burdens of canon and Disney’s top-down production management, the end result feels less like a derivation and more like a successor. I wouldn’t dare suggest it will have the same sort of cultural influence as Star Wars — that’s a fundamentally irreplicable phenomenon in the streaming age. Yet, when compared to the recent garbage from Disney (Marvel and Star Wars both), Snyder proves the most capable and artful custodian of the extravagant, quasi-religious space-opera. His longstanding technical mastery that evolved into mainstream formal iconoclasm with the extreme shallow focus with the 15mm Canon dream lens of Army of the Dead and the 4:3 aspect ratio for Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) is taken to new extremes with the creative freedom provided by Netflix. Snyder’s inviolable picture bids for a better Hollywood. If we’re lucky, it might even be a taste of what’s to come.

Like George Lucas, Snyder finds inspiration in Akira Kurosawa, especially Seven Samurai (1954), as Kora (Algerian actor and singer Sofia Boutella) ventures in a multi-planet journey to recruit an army to defend her small farming colony on the moon Veldt against the Motherworld, the galaxy ruling empire. Perhaps its most significant flaw comes through most strongly in comparison with its structural debt to Seven Samurai: it ends too early through the two-part division. I suppose the two-part division has been made victor over the intermission as the concession of assiduous vision.

The Motherworld’s sprawling reach seems boundless, and that makes them a more daunting foe than the more terroristic foes that have dominated blockbusters post-9/11. Coded in imagery of both Nazism and Austro-Hungarian royalism, their is a natural disease with their uniforms that force real-world analogy. Consider the soldiers’ uniforms: though clearly inspired by the SS, they also bear a resemblance to the Royal Army (Landstreitkräfte Österreich-Ungarns) and its more monarchical imagery. Some viewers will surely dislike the bluntness of the real-world similarities (at least to the Nazis) but this misses the ideological impact of the decision. 

The mythical climax of one of our most indelible and personal stylists, this is the film Snyder has been moving toward for decades. He’s talked about it as a passion project in a way he’s never talked about another film before. And that passion floods the screen for the entire 134 minute runtime. Absent the films of Tarsem Singh, a close friend of Snyder and Michael Bay from film school, there hasn’t been a film that borrows or resembles the dance of light and darkness of Baroque art as much as the first part of Rebel Moon. The early scenes on Veldt resemble Judith Leyster’s underappreciated “Serenade” in the Honthorst-style (a low key candle lit from below) cinematic lighting. In the opening scenes of Kora plowing the field, her face appears shadowed beyond full perception like Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro that Snyder tested most recently in the black and white version of his cut of Justice League. (Here, it accomplishes the same effect with a more stylized means of Peter Jackson’s concealment of Strider’s face in The Fellowship of the Ring without the cheapening easter-egg payoff.) The outfits and production of the agrarian community resemble a time and place much closer to 17th century Europe than to Tatooine. More excitingly, many comic book movie directors visualize groups according to the thought processes of adolescent bad-assery; think of the famed though ultimately empty group-hero shot of The Avengers. The group shots here take more from the great tradition of tableau vivant than it does from the economically driven reproducibility of Stan Lee (an artist I believe Snyder admires greatly). Carrying the torch of both Kurosawa and Caravaggio into politicized modernity, A Child of Fire must be considered one of the most artistically dexterous blockbusters of the century.

In his second outing as cinematographer, Snyder has gained even greater control for his high-stylism and complicated compositions. He almost thinks in 3-D, despite making a movie largely for home-viewing. Sand sprayed by the spaceships flicks at the camera like a dog kicking dirt after a piss. The spectacular action takes place almost on a multi-dimensional level — without breaking action, the camera knows no limits in perspective or movement. Almost like the digital camera in a 3-D computer graphic software like Blender, the camera really feels like it can be anywhere or do anything without the hindrance of blocking or less planned visual effects. 

REBEL MOON: Staz Nair as Tarak in Rebel Moon. Cr. Chris Strother/Netflix © 2023

In the opening minutes, the Motherworld sends a warship to hover over the fertile fields of Veldt — the sight of which causes Kora to spill the seeds she was planting in the soil. The spilling of seeds, coming just moments after village chief Sindri (Corey Stoll) implored intercourse to ensure their good harvest, has, of course, already been noted for its sexual implications. Writer John Demetry provides a case for the film’s erotic and largely sexual (even redemptive) meanings, including a compelling account of how empire distorts sexual beauty into violence and malplaced desire (the tendril sex, attempted rape, etc). The women of the film, following the pop-trend of Thor: Love and Thunder and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, flourish in their muscular bodies, a callback to the female leads in the heyday of action filmmaking; the men magnify the varieties of masculinity worth celebrating, and do so while often shirtless and always following the lead of a woman. Doona Bae, one of the most exciting leading women working in Korea, is particularly ravishing as Nemesis, the wielder of two flame swords and a costume that resembles the keen work of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’s costume designer Penny Rose. (The wormy face of one of the aliens also recalls the design of Davy Jones in Gore Verbinski’s third Pirates film.)

Snyder is up to something more profound than horny gazing, to be sure. As I noted in a previous review of Near Dark, the Greco-Roman and biblical meaning of “eros” contained multitudes of depth beyond the binaries of pleasure/displeasure and embracing/violating. Plato didn’t even think it required physical attraction whatsoever and could be transferred onto bigger ideas of beauty; a love for one or an appreciation for someone else’s beauty could translate into a love and appreciation for the Beauty itself. Eros is life-giving as is the rebellious heroism of Rebel Moon. With the introduction of Tarak (Staz Nair), the sculpted and always shirtless slave and the former prince of a genocided people, Snyder links sex appeal with gentleness as the slave must mount a griffin to secure his freedom. The introduction of Nemesis also links physicality with motherhood. The farmhand and ideologically in-formation Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) decides not to kill Kora with the extremely phallic space version of the captive bolt pistol (the tool they use to kill pigs) and instead frees her with the same weapon, a handheld (skull) penetration device of sorts. The rebels’ fight for life extends to the basic patterns of relation within their social unit. Most powerfully, Kora stops an attempted rape of the farmgirl Sam (Charlotte Maggi) by the imperial force left behind on Veldt; she dispatches the soldiers with an haste and brutality reminiscent of the hallway fight in Resident Evil: Retribution, a similarity reinforced through the masterful use of negative space that Snyder shares with both Paul WS Anderson and the Dutch Golden Age painters. After the spilling of the occupiers blood, the town is left with no option but a belligerent renunciation. Kora’s act of rebellion set aside the utilitarian concern of the community to preserve the life and autonomy of one of its members; in the process, she saves the moral capacity of the entire village.

My only knock against the masterpiece is its incompleteness. To return to the Seven Samurai connection, A Child of Fire concludes after the rebel group establishes itself and leaves the grand defense of the rural territory for another day. It’s not that the film lacks a fulfilling conclusion or is essentially unwatchable without its second part; that wouldn’t do the story justice. But the story between the first and second part are bound to be so connected that it’s better to talk of them as one movie, as Snyder has… and since we have only seen part of that movie (a damn good part, to be assured), it almost deserves a more prudent initial judgment than I have provided here. Additionally, the Netflix cut of the film (there will be a longer director’s cut coming soonish) pounces from new planet to new planet with an almost rapid ephemerality, likely leaving most of the action and incising the more detailed relationship building of the longer version. If anything can be learned from previous Snyder cuts, it’s that the longer versions feature even richer characters than their shorter “theatrical” versions. They are also always better. If this is a sign of anything, it’s less of a flaw of the PG-13 version and more of a sign that the extended edition may even be too much of a good thing.

In addition to the director’s cut, Netflix will release Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver this April.

Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child of Fire
dir. Zack Snyder
134 min.

Streaming on Netflix beginning Friday, 12/22

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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