2 out of 5 stars

These days, it seems a law that even bad films look good. In the mainstream, there’s no real differentiation at a glance between hackwork, B-movie schlock, and “serious” cinema. Perhaps the best illustration is Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon saga, now on its second instalment.

Pre-streaming, in the latter three decades of the last century, a work like Rebel Moon would have stood alongside Roger Corman knock-offs like Forbidden World (1982) and Space Raiders (1984), destined to languish on video shop shelves or fill the graveyard shift on TV channels. Like those films, both entries in the Rebel Moon saga—currently A Child of Fire (2023) and The Scargiver—are a mess of tropes and callbacks to other, better science fiction. Unlike those films, they lack the grace or self-awareness to be a breezy 80 minutes. So far, we have 256 minutes of Zack Snyder’s Homeric Odyssey, clocking in at over four hours, with enough story for perhaps two.

Kora (Sofia Boutella), a former imperial soldier turned rebel fighter, must now defend her adopted home, Veldt, a farming moon, from the Realm. The Realm is the galactic governing body, with an army led by Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein). Kora believed she’d killed him in the previous film, but in a move reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise’s infamous “Palpatine returned” trope, the filmmakers behind Rebel Moon bring Noble back. To be fair, his resurrection was foreshadowed at the end of Part One: A Child of Fire. Noble’s goal in terrorising Veldt is to secure enough grain to feed his troops on their journey to the Motherworld. This point was elaborated upon at length (perhaps excessively) in my review of Child of Fire. However, doesn’t it seem strange that in an intergalactic government with advanced technology, bushels of grain are still needed to sustain a mobile military? One wonders if these spaceships travel the cosmos by oar!

There’s also some rubbish about a Slain King (Cary Elwes), felled by his own Parliament, and his daughter Princess Issa, a magical little girl presumed killed by Kora when she was still under the imperial yoke and brought reluctantly into league with the King’s usurpers. But this is all just flotsam and jetsam. The 86-year-old Anthony Hopkins voices Jeremy, Issa’s loyal C-3PO-style android, who also takes on the Yoda role by inspiring Kora in a damp cave.

Snyder’s aesthetic remains fundamentally adolescent. It utilises influences from classical history and mythology in a way that suggests it thinks it’s cleverer than it is. An early senatorial assassination, for instance, is modelled visually on Brutus’s betrayal of Caesar but is hamstrung by flat writing and performance, as well as a lack of any sense of timing or pace. Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) might not be the pre-eminent actor of our time, but he’s talented and competent enough that his performance as the slain king is likely stilted more due to Snyder’s directing and co-writing.

What buries Rebel Moon, though, is its excessive portentousness. The whole thing is so leaden and sombre. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “space opera”, which Rebel Moon is supposed to be, as “a novel, film, or television programme set in outer space, typically of a simplistic and melodramatic nature.” With this in mind, it should presumably be heroic, uplifting, and full of adventure. Of course, an artist can choose whatever tone they like, but when you decide to work within a certain genre, expectations are created. You’d be disappointed if your horror film was utterly lacking in atmosphere, or your comedy had no laughs.

Snyder appears to want his cake and eat it too. He desires the lack of complexity offered by space opera alongside the sombre thematic lustre of harder science fiction. In other words, he craves the appearance of a profound and serious artist while indulging in the whole “pew-pew!” shoot-’em-up affair. To be both George Lucas and Isaac Asimov.

Star Wars (1977), the film from which Rebel Moon borrows most heavily and obviously, has been described as a movie that was rescued in the editing room. (This is partly used as a way to recontextualise Lucas as having always been a hack, following the backlash against the prequels.) But even if that’s the case, the wonder and adventure needed to be there in the first place, the raw material with which to fashion that game-changing final product.

You could edit The Scargiver for eternity and it would still be a slog. One-dimensional characterisation, adolescent “portent,” and banal dialogue devoid of colour or irony plague the narrative. A constant Greek chorus of choral music plays, presumably added to generate drama and evoke a mythic scale. It’s so unvaried and unrelenting, however, that it becomes the narrative equivalent of hearing a musician play the same notes on repeat. If this is a space opera, it desperately needs a wider range of instruments in its orchestral pit.

The Scarifier even fumbles what could have been a badass moment for its main protagonist. Here, at the last moment before battle, she caves to the oppressor and has to be forced into fighting by her love interest. A single chance at a genuinely “cool” character moment, and Snyder smothers it in despondency.

The film is his variation on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the Star Wars entry that famously leaned in on the character stuff as opposed to constructing a fully-rounded, three-act plot and is considered the best of the series by many for its darker, more reflective tone. Given that he can’t tell a story, Snyder’s version of this is to have his main cast sit around a table taking turns to share histories. It’s such an obvious crutch that he and his two co-writers might as well have stuck stickers on them with their character names. It feels almost Brechtian in the sense that it calls attention to its artificiality.

I was reminded of studying Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play Mother Courage and Her Children in high school drama class, where the characters wore placards revealing their names and functions. (Brecht’s use of signs stuck around the stage and on performers foreshadowed multimedia approaches adopted by modern theatre. Who says my Drama A-Level would have been better spent getting laid?) I can’t say The Scargiver would’ve been worse if it had ditched the roundtable and put Boutella, Skrein, and company in sandwich boards with their names and backstories written on them.

In recent years, Snyder appears to have gained a certain amount of cultural respect from his fans thanks to the “Snyder Cut”. This cut, which originated with Justice League (2017), was eventually released to the public as Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) after a significant social media campaign. The original film was taken over by Joss Whedon, who reshot scenes and re-edited it to a 120-minute runtime, only for it to flop at the box office. (In the world of big-budget superhero films, it did turn a profit, grossing over double its $300M budget with a total of $661M. While this would be considered a success for most films, it’s a mere drop in the ocean when you factor in the enormous marketing costs associated with these blockbuster productions.) The Snyder Cut, on the other hand, was a frankly bizarre four-hour epic.

It appears he’s taken the same approach with his Rebel Moon films, hinting at unreleased “R-rated” cuts, which would mean more sex, violence, and swearing. This feels like a crass attempt to capitalise on the remnants of the “Snyder Cut” cult, fans who believe that if their man were simply unleashed, he’d give them much more in terms of quality. And perhaps, for them, he would. I give The Scargiver a very generous two stars, even though it’s closer to one, a string-and-plywood Roger Corman film with a multi-million dollar budget. After all, there’s a fanbase for this sort of thing who will get what they want from it. Good luck to them, but don’t save any popcorn for me.

USA | 2024 | 122 MINUTES | 2.76:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Zack Snyder.
writers: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad & Shay Hatten (story by Zack Snyder).
starring: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Skrein, Michiel Huisman, Donna Bae, Ray Fisher, Staz Nair, Fra Fee, Elise Duffy & Anthony Hopkins (voice).