From his critically maligned but fan-favorite Sucker Punch to his infamous internet darling “Snyder Cut” of 2017’s Justice League, Zack Snyder is no stranger to drumming up discourse whenever one of his films nears release. His latest effort for Netflix, Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire, has already sparked discussions of an R-rated, three-hour director’s cut to give his fans an alternate taste before Rebel Moon — Part Two hits the streaming platform early next year. But while Snyder may do his best to invent a dark, gripping universe to engross viewers, Rebel Moon is a limp, soulless regurgitation of tropes stolen from much more formidable films.
Written, directed, produced, and shot by Snyder, Rebel Moon follows Kora (Sofia Boutella), a battle-hardened soldier with a tragic past. Though she’s attempting to live a low-profile life on a peaceful farming colony, Kora is forced to once again take up the mantle of warrior when the Motherworld sends a military contingent led by the brutal Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein) to occupy her new home. With the help of a humble farmer (Michiel Huisman) Kora sets off on a galaxy-spanning adventure to recruit a ragtag group of fighters to defend her homeland.
Attempting to establish an original, engrossing science-fiction world is no small task, even for the most adept of writers, and it’s painfully clear that Snyder took heavy aesthetic and stylistic notes from genre classics like Star Wars and Dune, without understanding the story and emotional beats that made those aforementioned franchises so beloved. Certainly, there’s all manner of science-fiction spectacle in Rebel Moon to gawk at: the characters are all dressed in tattered greyscale robes, wielding retrofuturist weapons and talking about the “Motherworld” and the “Imperium.”
But while every element of production design, costuming, and worldbuilding is certainly specific, none of them are inspired or purposeful. Instead, Rebel Moon’s stylistic sensibilities feel like Snyder simply tossed all the sci-fi greats into a blender and called it a day. Extensive attention is paid to plotting out lore and history, but Snyder forgets to flesh out the characters that populate his meticulously detailed universe.
Aside from Kora, whose tragic backstory and brutal upbringing are delivered entirely through clunky monologues of exposition that bleed into extensive flashback sequences, the rest of Rebel Moon’s sizable ensemble cast are eacg allotted five minutes of dialogue, if that. Kora and her crew flit to a new planet, are treated to a dazzling display of their new ally’s combat prowess, given the CliffsNotes version of their tragic backstory (is there any other kind?), and then that character simply falls in among the ranks, never to be examined or explored with any real intentionality again.
As for Kora herself, Boutella brings the customary strength and stoicism expected of a YA dystopian protagonist with none of the heart or passion. Constantly glowering out from underneath her dark crop of hair, Kora is a painfully uninteresting hero whose stoicism is certainly understandable given her history, but whose personality could not make for a more tepid protagonist. Though she’s plenty ferocious in combat, Kora is detached and distant when not embroiled in a fight, giving the entire film a remote, inaccessible emotional core. At two hours and 15 minutes, Rebel Moon is a laborious moviegoing experience—why should the audience care about the film’s events when the protagonist herself barely seems to?
Rebel Moon’s lack of interest in exploring its own characters is made all the more frustrating by the cruel, visceral nature of its villains—while we don’t get much personality from Kora, Gunnar, and the other wannabe heroes, we are treated to several extended sequences that revel in the cruelty and violence of the Imperium. The vaguely fascist ruling faction is clearly an underbaked stand-in for Star Wars’ Empire, but Snyder mistakes onscreen brutality for effective writing. The film’s first act subjects viewers to an extended sequence of Imperium soldiers attempting to rape a villager, a scene that serves no other purpose than making explicitly clear to the audience that the authoritarian military occupiers are, in fact, bad guys.
The world Snyder has created is a cold, brutal one, utterly lacking in any kind of charm, whimsy, or excitement. The closest Rebel Moon ever comes to eliciting any kind of emotional response is during the action-packed, slo-mo heavy combat sequences. Stories like Star Wars and Dune soar by using far-fetched worlds and fantastical settings to interrogate relatable, deeply human ideas. Rebel Moon, on the other hand, trades in the aesthetic trappings of those classics without making the effort to engage on any emotional or philosophical level.
Though Rebel Moon ends on a relative cliffhanger with the promise of a sequel on the horizon, it’s difficult to imagine why one would want to subject themselves to another two hours in this soulless slog of a universe. Certainly, Snyder is a master of his particular brand of highly stylized action sequences, but the sheer lack of emotional stakes and memorable characters renders Rebel Moon toothless.
Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child Of Fire begins streaming on Netflix December 21.
This review originally appeared on The A.V. Club.