The parallels between Rebel Moon and Star Wars — both set in a galaxy ruled by an authoritarian empire challenged by a small band of rebels — are overstated and certainly not the primary issue with Zack Snyder’s space opera, which draws liberal inspiration from the past 50 years of sci-fi movies. This “Part 1” (due to be concluded next year) sets up the pleasantly small-scale stakes of a farming community facing a ticking clock to destruction, but it devolves into a collect-a-thon when Kora leaves to recruit warriors to aid their fight. It turns the film’s second act into a series of extended introductions to cookie-cutter characters, usually involving violence. An amalgamation of these scenes may have made for a bombastic trailer but laid out in full it is barely watchable. Rebel Moon’s most interesting character is the android Jimmy, a contemplative former soldier voiced by Anthony Hopkins, but once established he vanishes (the fact he may be relevant in Part 2 does little to aid this film). A villainous Ed Skrein is at least enjoying himself as a cruel and capricious officer. Disappointingly, much of the world building occurs through clunky expository monologues about Kora’s past rather than emerging organically from the story. The purpose of planet-hopping space opera should be to explore the variety offered by a vast galaxy, but Snyder’s “vision” is a series of grimy monochromatic locations that rarely feel like distinct worlds. The action is rote, save for Nemesis’s twin-bladed fight against a chimeric arachnid, and Snyder’s continuing predilection for slow-motion adds little beyond extending the running time. If Netflix is paying for “content”, there is plenty here but with little depth to any of it. Rebel Moon is not even thematically consistent, with Nemesis warning against revenge immediately followed by Kora enticing her next recruit with a promise of revenge. With the production values on display this is not Battlefield Earth bad, but it does become nearly as ponderous. Snyder recently stated that he was glad he didn’t get his wish to direct a Star Wars movie because it granted him greater creative control in Rebel Moon instead; perhaps we should all be equally glad, if not for the same reason.
“Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty… For tonight, we dine in hell!”
Fittingly nominated for QuickView #300, Zack Snyder’s sophmore feature marked the first of many comicbook-inspired movies and remains arguably his best. 300 is less a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel than a translation — Snyder would develop a range of visual techniques to emulate the source material, including its dichromatic palette of red and gold, shot almost entirely on digital backlot with only two practical sets. Even Snyder’s trademark overuse of slow-motion seems fitting here, where he is literally recreating panels of Miller’s art. Although based on the Battle of Thermopylae, this is overtly fantasy rather than history, narrated by a Spartan soldier with the purpose of mythologising events. This explains the one-sided perspective that garnered criticism for painting the Persians as barbaric mystics (often monstrously disfigured) whilst the Greeks are styled as the discliplined defenders of rationality and freedom (conveniently ignoring that Sparta was built upon a slave class that is never shown). The cast is filled with character actors able to bring stage skills to empty digital backlot sets; though many are now household names, most were not at the time immediately recognisable faces. 300‘s focus is not the reality of war but a pulse-pounding hypermasculine depiction of battle, cartoonish crimson sprays barely slowing its improbably muscular heroes, who are clad in little more than loincloths, capes, and more underlying homoeroticism than a Top Gun volleyball game. Like much of Zack Snyder’s work, 300 is undeniably style over substance but that is less of an issue here, where the source material was likewise unburdened by depth. When there is this much style, deployed creatively in ways we had never seen before, that can be satisfying in itself.
“You all keep talking about the city like it’s their prison. It’s not. It’s their kingdom.”
Lilly (The Coyote)
In the saturated zombie genre, the proposition of a heist movie set in an infested Las Vegas sounds like a refreshingly fun time. Unfortunately Army of the Dead‘s neon-filled advertising is misleading; the set-up is enjoyable but by the time the crew is ready to enter the city, the atmosphere has already turned dour, heist elements swiftly falling by the wayside amidst familiar zombie action. Whilst it often feels derivative, the film owes more to Aliens than to other zombie films. I routinely forget that Zack Snyder’s debut feature (and one of his best) was the strong 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Zombies as a representation of mindless consumerism has been a genre staple for 40 years, and scaling up from a shopping mall to the Las Vegas Strip is a logical conclusion. This being a Snyder flick, the allegory is either very on the nose (money raining down during a casino firefight) or rather confused (it is the humans who are motivated predominantly by greed, whilst the “intelligent” zombies have other motivations). It all makes for a competent action film with plenty of gore and a few shocks, but there is little that we haven’t seen done better before.
“Maybe a man who broods in a cave for a living isn’t cut out to be a recruiter.”
After the chore of Batman v Superman, I had no interest in seeing another grimdark Zack Snyder superhero movie, but — having avoided the 2017 theatrical version of Justice League — curiosity finally has the better of me. I will readily accept that this is a better version of the movie as there would simply have been no way to condense this material into the two-hour film mandated by the studio. The new cut runs to nearly four hours and, whilst that is certainly too long, much of this was needed to introduce three new heroes and a villain. The Flash is introduced effectively through a concise rescue sequence that showcases both his powers and personality, but the other hero introductions are fragmented and inefficient: we see more brooding than character, piecing things together from what others say. Steppenwolf is a generic hulking villain in spiky CG armour that is intricate but uninteresting; the character is little more than a vehicle to introduce Darkseid as a future antagonist (Snyder’s extended epilogue further telegraphs what he would like to have done with the DCEU but introducing yet more characters in a film already overcrowded with new faces is unhelpful). Most of the action is hollow and repetitive, predominantly characters punching or throwing each other into walls, interspersed with slow-motion hero poses and computer-generated particle effects. It occurs in locations that are intended to be vast and epic, but frequently feel like the empty backdrops of a fighting game rather than organic, connected spaces. Snyder’s use of a 4:3 aspect ratio has been derided and “preserving his vision” of IMAX framing does seem self-indulgent for a film that is only available on streaming services. In practice, it is easy to forget and little use is made of the additional frame height to actually warrant the unusual choice. When it comes to tone, there is something to be said for not falling into the MCU pattern of undercutting more serious moments with levity. Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed how well grittier realism can work but, when every moment becomes bleak and overbearing, the experience is turgid and exhausting. Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League will not change anyone’s mind about his take on the DC universe: Snyder fans will see this release as vindication, whilst others will consider it another incredibly expensive testament to style over substance. With his name in the title, this is plainly a very personal project for Snyder, showing brief flourishes of excellence but mostly feeling soulless, whilst making grand promises about theoretical future films that are unlikely ever to be realised.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.