Once a discarded pitch for a Star War, now even before it’s released an already-truncated first half of an eventually-six-hour techno-fantasy epic, Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon — Part One: Child of Fire offers its creator a massive canvas, almost unlimited resources, and promises the primary influence of no less than Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. And yet, it’s the worst-case scenario of that potential: a hopelessly derivative, technically awkward, clumsily expository half of a movie.
So, apparently, there was a fascist galactic empire that lasted for thousands of years, razing and pillaging world after world and subjugating their peoples. But then one day some even worse fascists staged a coup, took over, and blamed the whole thing on insurgents who had already been fighting the first set of marginally nicer fascists. Now, those bad guys — The Motherworld — have come to the peaceful farming world of Veldt, like the bandits in Seven Samurai, to steal the grain from this one village. And so, it falls to Kora (Sofia Boutella) to seek out warriors from around the galaxy to help the farmers make a stand against the evil Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein) and his troops.
What follows is scene after scene of endless plot and character exposition, as our heroine and her cadre of cohorts hop from planet to planet gathering help. There’s rogue-ish Kai (Charlie Hunnam), slave Tarak (Staz Nair), miserable swordswoman Nemesis (Bae Doona), and so on and so forth. It’s at roughly the halfway point that viewers will start to wonder if Djimon Honsou is going to show up as a grizzled warrior (don’t worry, he does). Each one of these players is granted a lengthy showcase scene, like taming a wild giant bird or fighting a deadly spider-lady with what were at some point in this film’s life probably lightsabers. Between character introductions, Kora gives one speech after another delineating her backstory; at one point she even says, “I’m telling you this so you know who I am,” which it’s tough to imagine isn’t an intentional joke. Sadly, it isn’t. Throughout all of this explication of character Snyder insists on the idea that they’re all escaping from some central trauma — something he clearly believes in full is the ultimate project here — but it’s all treated with such blunt obviousness that you can guess the stories before they’re even told. One longs for a story that allows its archetypes to tell their stories through action — being who they are rather than explaining it.
The worlds these characters inhabit are also woefully under-imagined; over here is a familiar desert world, over there is another dank evil empire spaceship populated by bad guys with vaguely British accents, and then there’s yet another industrial dystopia. One world is even just a green-screened backdrop of blue clouds. There is admittedly some cool creature design — the aforementioned spider-lady (played by Jena Malone), a squid-faced regent, a little bug parasite that sucks its victims’ brains out while it puppeteers them — but most of our lead characters are blandly human. It’s enough to wonder why the sword-wielding badass couldn’t at least have four arms or something.
At least all this plot is welcomely broken up by Snyder’s action, punctuated by his trademark speed-ramped tableaux. There’s a remarkable clarity to it as always, and he’s working as his own DP here — as he did in the equally misbegotten Army of the Dead, but here with much less handheld — and he offers his cast the chance to finally shut their mouths and get to work doing what they were hired for: to look awesome posing. It’s clear that the violence, and therefore the cutting, has been defanged to get a lighter rating, but there’s still a frankness to the bloodshed that is too often missing from stuff like this. That said, it’s unclear that another hour of story will be worth slogging through to get some extra action. Rebel Moon is clearly full of enthusiasm and fueled by earnestness, but Snyder is totally lost in the weeds, especially regarding the needless promise of so, so much more of what already doesn’t work here. For all his sincerity, he’s poured his heart into something that’s just… air meat.
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder; CAST: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ray Fisher, Bae Doo-na, Ed Skrein; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: December 15; STREAMING: December 21; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 15 min.