Oddly, for a movie that’s rated PG-13 and often plays like a young-adult fantasy, Zack Snyder’s “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire” features at least two attempted sexual assaults and a queasily erotic encounter between a shirtless man and a many-tentacled alien. The film’s most thorough violation, though, is of its cinematic bloodline: To call “Rebel Moon” a “Star Wars” pastiche — with a dash of “Dune,” a lick of “Lord of the Rings” and a whole heap of “Seven Samurai”— is both glaringly accurate and somewhat redundant. In today’s fantasy-verse, derivativeness is virtually a given. Snyder has long been open about his influences, and has been imagining this crossbreeding of mythologies since he was in college.
Somewhere in a distant galaxy (you know how far away) floats a peaceful planet called Veldt where burlap-clad villagers till the soil and mind their own business. A fascistic empire known as the Motherworld has other ideas, sending its representative, Admiral Atticus Noble (a scenery-scarfing Ed Skrein), to demand grain for its army. Brazenly channeling Ralph Fiennes’ character from “Schindler’s List” (1993), Atticus sports bowl-cut bangs, an S.S.-style uniform and a really big stick; so after he promises to return and slaughter the villagers if grain is not forthcoming, finding a savior is on top of everyone’s to-do list.
Enter Kora (Sofia Boutella) a mysterious outsider with a secret past, an ultraflexible spine and an expression that splits the difference between ticked-off and smoldering. Kora has her own reasons to seek revenge on the Motherworld; accordingly, accompanied by the gentle Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), a confrontation-averse villager who looks at Kora the way your dog eyes your dinner plate, she embarks on a planet-hopping quest to round up fellow rebels.
Essentially a getting-the-gang-together movie, “Rebel Moon — Part One” (the conclusion, one hopes, follows next April) allows each insurgent a showy set piece and a line or two of grudge-filled back story. Among these is Charlie Hunnam as the rascally Kai, a Han Solo stand-in and the sole cast member with a jot of personality; Bae Doona as a master swordswoman with lightsaber forearms; and Staz Nair as a hunky creature whisperer. The movie’s most fun and flawless performance, though, comes from Jena Malone as a monstrous spider-woman who kidnaps small children. Her design cribs shamelessly from a “Doctor Who” character, but Malone gives her an Alice Krige-as-the-Borg Queen energy that’s creepily effective.
In attempting to paint a fresh gloss on some very old ideas, Snyder (who wrote the story and also acts as cinematographer) has turned Netflix money into an ambitious, erratic, relentless slide show of stand-alone images that strain to cohere into a single, engaging narrative. The result is a space opera that’s bloated but rarely buoyant, with paper-thin characters and action — when not rendered in Snyder’s signature slow motion — so chaotic it can be challenging to track. Boutella is a pleasingly game and lithesome heroine, but the movie around her feels curiously indifferent, a crammed, compressed delivery system for its maker’s dorm-room dreams.
Unspooling in dialogue of embarrassing banality, “Rebel Moon” finally buckles beneath the weight of its hackneyed exposition. Lurking in the wings after brief introductions are a malevolent ruler (Fra Fee), a tin man with a conscience (voiced by Anthony Hopkins, no less) and a missing princess who can bestow life. Let’s hope she can apply her skills to the next installment.
Rebel Moon — Part One: Child of Fire
Rated PG-13 for sucker erotica, sexual predation and operatic violence. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. Watch on Netflix.