Help, the Rebel Moon franchise has fallen and it can’t get up!

Last December’s Rebel Moon Part One: A Child of Fire was a paint-by-numbers space opera filled in with Zack Snyder’s maximalist colors. Pitched as “Seven Samurai but make it Star Wars” (literally, to Lucasfilm), the finished product was at best a violent B-movie mashup and at worst an expensive Asylum-esque mockbuster. Not a great movie, but a little promising? Its most glaring omission: an ending. After two hours of hero Kora (Sofia Boutella) wrangling a crew to defend a farming planet from Imperium forces, the showdown didn’t actually go down; Snyder held on to the payoff for Part Two: The Scargiver.

Unfortunately, anyone buckled in for a propulsive action-forward finale should adjust expectations: The Scargiver, now on Netflix, is a blaring stinger sustained for two hours. The characters in A Child of Fire were basically walking, talking RPG class types, but, you know, they went places — from space brothels to ranch planets to the inner sanctums of the Imperium. In Part Two, Snyder and his co-writers, Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten, contain, and suffocate, the drama on Veldt, the home to an agrarian society defined by the Malickian poetry of touching wheat. An hour is spent preparing for war, with obligatory training montages and vapid reflections on the state of the universe. The back half is brown-hued, smoke-filled militaristic combat occasionally cut through by red-plasma gunfire. It is ugly, it is repetitive, it is severely lacking in stand-up-and-cheer moments.

Help, the Rebel Moon franchise has fallen and it can’t get up!

But for real… what happened here?

Charlotte Maggi as Sam falls backward on the floor holding a sliced-in-half gun in Rebel Moon — Part Two: The Scargiver
It broke
Image: Netflix

After nodding off with 20 minutes to go, waking up, rewinding, and then watching to the end, I found myself more infuriated than expected as Junkie XL’s percussive anthem wailed over the credits. There was potential here. I don’t count myself among Snyder’s biggest fans, but Dawn of the Dead remains excellent, his Justice League redux was a major improvement, and his first Netflix movie, Army of the Dead, won me over. I had low expectations after A Child of Fire, but in theory, The Scargiver was a final act where a splash-page-maker could really go to town. A down-and-dirty bare-bones sci-fi action movie should be a check for Snyder to cash. Instead he delivered a bare-bones, dirty downer of a movie.

There is so much potential glimmering through the dust of the two Rebel Moon movies. Sofia Boutella has action bona fides and can convincingly plow through hordes of bad dudes in patented Snyder slo-mo — and she does it with a tangible humanity. Her character, Kora, went from the adopted daughter of the Emperor Palpatine stand-in, Belisarius, into a high-ranking Imperium officer, into an on-the-run fugitive who hopes to redeem herself by protecting the people of Veldt and dismantling galactic tyranny. The conflict is all hand-wavy, but Boutella sells it as pulp melodrama in A Child of Fire. The Scargiver gives her nothing to build on.

Snyder is genuinely smart about casting. Djimon Hounsou is in full powerhouse mode in the sequel, and even gets a chance to sing a war ballad halfway through (in a hybrid of African languages native to his home country of Benin). Doona Bae continues to whup with dual swords in The Scargiver. Ed Skrein’s detestable Atticus Noble is even more of a stock Snarling Villain after having his brain restarted and, well, he’s trying.

That’s the main issue: There is tons of talent on display, all plugged into rote characters and sloppy action.

Djimon Hounsou as General Titus in Rebel Moon — Part Two: The Scargiver holding a gun by his side as he stands near a massacred village
Djimon Hounsou as General Titus, looking clearer and more heroic than in any moment in the actual film
Photo: Clay Enos/Netflix

In the first half of the movie, Snyder gathers his band of heroes around a table on the eve of war to tell their backstories — and they all look and feel exactly the same! Each member of the team stood in front of an explosion at a pivotal moment in their past. Every planet they hail from is covered in soot. Every memory is explained with the same visual vocabulary. I am all for slow cinema, but even Paul Schrader would give up on this level of expositional torture.

As Snyder told me last year during press rounds for A Child of Fire, the Rebel Moon movies were his chance to go weirder than ever before. “I was looking for something that was really pushing the sci-fi fantasy elements to their extreme,” Snyder said. There’s only one scene in The Scargiver that comes remotely close to capturing that big talk, when we finally get to see the royal assassination that forced Kora to go on the run. In the background of the scene is an Imperium string quartet playing diegetic horror muzak during what becomes an even bigger reveal. Why would they keep playing when people are getting straight-up murdered? Who cares, this is cinema. Snyder is right to let the bizarre rip instead of overexplaining the why, but there’s nothing remotely that “extreme” before or after the scene.

Snyder’s background is fine arts, specifically painting, and you see it in the chiaroscuro speed-ramping that litters his filmography. But the closest The Scargiver gets to anything arty is that you could compare it to Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, in that it’s near monochromatic and feels like someone biting your head off. Starting with Army of the Dead, Snyder took over shooting his own films on top of directing them, and it feels like a loss in the Rebel Moon sequel — not only is there a lack of vision when it comes to frames, but even the geography and pace feel slippery. Action movies made on a fourth of Scargiver’s budget are higher-impact than the swords-versus-guns combat we see in the thick of the battle on Veldt. If the idea was to do what Star Wars couldn’t, Rebel Moon should be going harder than Rogue One or Andor.

Rebel Moon Part Three, anyone?

Army guys running with big guns shooting through dust clouds at targets off screen in Rebel Moon — Part Two: The Scargiver
Every bit of action looks like this, but dustier
Image: Netflix

Rebel Moon was supposed to be Netflix’s big franchise, a Star Wars-level “universe” to explore. Supposedly Snyder, Johnstad, and Hatten have mapped out six films in the saga, and Netflix preemptively poured money into Rebel Moon spinoff comics and a video game (with a theoretical TTRPG project canceled over reasons beyond quality). After Snyder delivered his first two movies, the company threw millions at promotional events and marketing, a sign that it had… something. Maybe The Scargiver will defy reviews, be a huge hit for Netflix, and spawn intended sequels — Part Two doesn’t have a post-credits scene but uses its final beat to explain just where the story will go next in a potential Part Three. They left that in.

One major roadblock ahead of Snyder just came into view only after the release of Part One. A new producer, Dan Lin (It, the Lego movies) has stepped in to take over Netflix’s film program, and a recent report on The Hollywood Reporter suggests he is looking to go smaller with the slate, not bigger. While Netflix flaunted Rebel Moon Part One’s immediate No. 1 status upon arrival, the long-term numbers didn’t add up to such an undeniable hit that Lin would have to greenlight the sequels. In fact, THR noted in the report on Lin’s tenure that Rebel Moon premiered to just half the audience of the Julia Roberts-led sci-fi chamber drama Leave the World Behind — an apt title for what might happen next in the Rebel Moon franchise.

There is at least a little more Rebel Moon material waiting in the wings; as Snyder has promised from the beginning, R-rated cuts of A Child of Fire and The Scargiver were prepared in tandem with the PG-13 versions that exist now on the platform. In a previous interview with Polygon, Snyder said those versions, while more violent, are also “a deep dive into the universe — it’s a lot more,” adding that “it’s almost like the story takes place in a slightly different dimension than this movie that’s about to come out.”

Let’s hope so! The swampy version of The Scargiver currently on Netflix inspires little faith in what could be mined from the Rebel Moon franchise in the future. Maybe this was Snyder’s plan all along, to put out a halfhearted PG-13 edit of his movie so that the richer, more emotionally potent R-rated storytelling could really shine. Or maybe he simply lost the thread as he remixed one too many influences. Ultimately, if Rebel Moon ends with The Scargiver, it means the best Rebel Moon story has yet to come: the one Snyder will tell about “what was supposed to happen in Rebel Moon Part Three,” parceled out over his next decade of interviews.