SPOILER ALERT: This story contains major spoilers for “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire,” now streaming on Netflix.
Kurt Johnstad and Zack Snyder first started talking about creating “Rebel Moon” in 1997. In college, Snyder came up with the idea of a “Dirty Dozen” movie set in space, and the two would discuss their favorite films as a launching point for what eventually became the sci-fi world of “Rebel Moon.”
“’What’s your favorite science-fiction movie?’ ‘Oh, ‘Star Wars,’’ or I would say ‘Seven Samurai.’ We would always hit these really cinematic wavelengths, certainly as a child with cinema who went to the movies. All of those influences, we can’t deny the impact,” Johnstad says.
After a long process that involved Snyder initially pitching the movie to Lucasfilm as a “Seven Samurai”-inspired “Star Wars” story, their vision finally came to life with Netflix’s two-part space epic set in a completely original universe. “Rebel Moon — Part One: A Child of Fire” debuted on the streamer on Dec. 21, and “Rebel Moon — Part Two: The Scargiver” will be released on April 19, 2024. Two R-rated director’s cuts will also be released at a later date.
“Rebel Moon” takes place in a galaxy ruled by the Motherworld. The Imperium, its military, threatens a farming colony on the moon Veldt, where former Imperium member Kora (Sofia Boutella) lives. This sparks her to take action against the Motherworld, recruiting a team of rebels from various planets. But once their squad is assembled, Kai (Charlie Hunnam) — the mercenary pilot whom Kora picked up along the way — turns them over to the Motherworld, resulting in a battle between the rebels and the Imperium.
Despite the loss of insurgency leader Darrian Bloodaxe (Ray Fisher), the rebels come out largely victorious, with Kora defeating Imperium leader Admiral Noble (Ed Skrein). As the team heads back to Veldt, the final moments of the film reveal that the Motherworld has brought Noble back to life, and their fight against the Imperium is only just beginning.
Johnstad, who wrote the screenplay with Snyder and Shay Hatten, sat down with Variety to discuss splitting the movie into two parts, that twist ending and his thoughts on the negative critical reception.
Zack Snyder said he originally wrote “Rebel Moon” as a single film. How did splitting the film into two parts impact the structure of the story?
When we had that 200-plus page script, that was the story that Zack wanted to tell. We tried cutting back and sundering through the script. It got down to like 136 [pages] and Zack just read it and was like, “All of the world building is getting sacrificed here, and all the characters are taking a hit. We need to find a solution because this version of the movie isn’t interesting to me.” The challenge was to go back to the big draft, and then how do we make two movies? I really thought they were only going to make the first movie, and we would just have the second movie on a shelf sitting there, just like, “In success, we’ll get to do that one day.” And then Zack convinced them, “I’m gonna shoot both movies back-to-back,” and [Netflix] went for it.
To get into the specifics of the ending, how did you come up with the idea to have Noble come back to life at the end?
That’s Zack’s idea. I’d love to take credit for that. We’re introducing bigger, broader themes in the Motherworld, his connection to Balisarius, the astral plane — which we haven’t really seen a lot. It is something that we’ll see further, how they can move through time and space, a very science fiction or science fantasy trope. We just thought it was so satisfying to see Noble or Ed get knocked off that buoy and for her to be standing victorious. To have our heroes think that they’re riding off and everything’s gonna be okay — and then this guy is, like, unkillable, and he’s out there still hunting them. That was a pretty cool idea.
Does Kora know about these revitalizing capabilities given her past in the Motherworld Imperium?
I think she’s being hopeful that Noble is dead, but I think that she knows how powerful the Motherworld is, and she also knows that there’s not going to be peace in the valley very long. Even if it’s not that Dreadnought, another Dreadnought is going to come looking. She’s on the run, and she’ll always be on the run until she faces who she needs to face.
How did you come up with the decision to have Kai betray the group?
It was a collective decision thinking that we needed something to turn that third act. I don’t remember how we got to it. That’s really the tricky thing with writing sometimes. Zack and I have been working together for almost 30 years. We’ve been friends for 30, and we’ve been writing together for 25. It’s a little bit like alchemy. You’re trying to turn these 10 leaden thoughts into golden thoughts and then all of a sudden, something reveals itself, and we’re like, “Oh, wouldn’t that be interesting if one of the people — that has been helping them and has been instrumental in their success of building this team — all of a sudden betrays them?” That’s where that came from. Heartbreakingly, we had said to Charlie, “Maybe you’re a twin” — which is not the case — but we were like, “How are we going to get Charlie back in the movie? He’s so fun.”
I also wanted to ask about seeing Jimmy again at the end with those deer antlers. What was up with that?
Jimmy has a much bigger story in those extended cuts and certainly in the second movie. It’s a little bit like Jimmy goes from this sentient robot to really becoming a little more human, and he goes a little feral. When everybody is being collected and the team is getting built, he’s running around in the woods being like a feral creature and hunting and sitting by the brook and catching fish and doing Jimmy things out in the woods, so that’s where the crown of antlers comes from.
There’s a lot of commentary about “Star Wars” comparisons, given that Zack originally pitched “Rebel Moon” as a “Star Wars” story. How do you feel about those connections people are making with the films?
It’s impossible not to be compared to “Star Wars.” They’re very different worlds. We’re trying to do very different things. I have great respect for George Lucas and everything that he’s done for 50 years. He’s changed the shape of this entire town, so we can’t say that we haven’t been affected or haven’t absorbed some of those lessons and cinematically those experiences. It would be false, and we’d be lying. The idea is, if given our own opportunity — just like George was a complete rebel in this town and an iconoclast — how can we do the same thing in our time? That isn’t a written mandate, but it’s just like, “Oh, how can I write the most provocative, inspiring, interesting, twist and turn kind of story?” George used Campbell’s hero’s journey, as did we. This is Kora’s story, and she’s at the heart of the movie.
How much did you want these influences to be apparent when you’re watching the film versus seeing it as its own piece of work?
I think sometimes we’re having fun with it. We’ve named characters like Milius after John Milius because he’s written some of the great movies of the last 50 years. There’s things like that, like we’ll give you a nod. But then there are things that just become their own thing. Zack is trying to do something very different here that really hasn’t been done in a long time. This isn’t an IP. This is an original story. It’s being created by hundreds, if not thousands of technicians. That’s a really bold thing. He as a filmmaker takes big swings on every film, and it’s fun to watch somebody who has enough confidence, internally in himself, to take those kinds of swings in the material that he puts out there in the world.
Some critics have used those influences and connections to other films as a critique. How do you feel about the reception the film has received so far?
I don’t read the reviews, I never have. Critics have a job to do. We live in a democracy. Everybody gets to vote. If people watch the film, they’ll have an experience, and they will either enjoy it or they won’t. It’s flavors of ice cream. In my career of 20 years doing this, reviews have never equated to performance. A movie will either perform or it won’t. People will either love it and be connected to it, and I think what this movie has is an emotional drive and a core and characters that are vulnerable. And of course, there’s sequence and action and visual — it’s a magnificent looking film. But I think that at the core of it, it’s got emotion. There’s an emotional engine and a currency that runs through the film that I think works, so I’d invite people to check it out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.