Rebel Moon – Part One: Netflix’s $150 million sci-fi epic is just Star Wars with scowls

Donna Bae as Nemesis in Rebel Moon
Donna Bae as Nemesis in Rebel Moon - Clay Enos/Netflix

Muscle pumps are to Zack Snyder what murder was to Alfred Hitchcock, so it should come as no surprise that his new science-fiction fantasy epic unfolds in a galaxy far, far away where everybody has enormous arms. The often awkwardly familiar Rebel Moon started life as an official Star Wars project at Lucasfilm before Snyder hauled it over to Netflix, sans franchise branding but with an estimated $150 million price tag, making it the streamer’s costliest 2023 release. And around its many nods to and cribs from George Lucas’s 1977 classic, the Man of Steel and Army of the Dead director’s own proclivities remain bulgingly apparent.

There’s a restless young farmhand of momentous secret parentage; a fascistic superpower whose venerable leader’s right-hand man is a murderous loose cannon; a scoundrel with a battered old spacecraft who turns up in a rough-and-ready cantina to fly our heroes off-world. And every man jack of them has apparently been on the Magic Mike regime, pounding away on the pec deck and scoffing 15 chicken breasts a night. Charlie Hunnam’s rakish bounty hunter Kai has such spectacular shoulders he should have really been named Han Swole-o, while even the droid voiced by Anthony Hopkins has thighs that would have made C-3PO swoon into his oil bath.

To be clear, all of this is marvellous: rockin’ bods is the one area in which Rebel Moon seems to have a vague idea what it wants to do. Otherwise this first half of Snyder’s diptych (the second is due in the spring) is more of a loosely doodled mood board than a functioning film – a series of pulpy tableaux that mostly sound fun in isolation, but become numbingly dull when run side by side. That even after a reported 20 years in the making the film still feels fundamentally pointless isn’t just disappointing, it’s entirely bewildering. The method was Bonsai; the outcome cress in an egg cup.

If the film too often feels like an uninspired Lucas homage, that is at least partly because it draws inspiration from many of the things Lucas was himself homaging, from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films to Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, and Frank Frazetta’s lush and lurid comic book and LP covers. (One of the better sequences involves Staz Nair’s shirtless barbarian prince straddling a hippogriff – a Heavy Metal magazine illustration come to life.) However, knowing that doesn’t actually stop the film from just feeling like own-brand Star Wars with extra scowls.

Sofia Boutella stars as Kora, whom we meet ploughing fields on the Viking-esque moon of Veldt. Shortly after this, a grim run-in with the Empire – sorry, the Imperium – prompts her to pull together a rag-tag team of revolutionaries, or ‘rebel alliance’ if you will, who can help loosen the baddies’ grip on her humble home world.

Some of the many ensuing shootouts and beatdowns have a certain Warhammer 40,000-like glowering charm. But Snyder’s usually sleek aesthetic is disappointingly murky here, with one gloomy planetary backdrop blending soggily into the next. The one dependable bright spot is Ed Skrein’s mad-eyed villain, Atticus Noble: think Rik Mayall in SS getup, bonking his foes on the battlefield with a mahogany femur. Fortunately he appears to be coming back next time, so if Snyder finds him an Adrian Edmondson we might be in business.

On Netflix now