It’s good! Marvel’s biggest risk to date (and we really mean that this time) GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is not only a pleasantly shiny space adventure film with laughs, loveable anti-heroes and fireworks aplenty, but it’s also the most outright fun I’ve had sat in front of a massive screen this year.
In 1988, following a family tragedy, young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) was abducted from Earth and taken into the vastness of outer space. He grows up to be a daring thief grandly dubbing himself Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and proceeds to attract the wrong sort of attention from some dangerous sorts when he steals a mysterious orb and his bitter mentor and former employer Yondu (Michael Rooker) puts out a bounty on his head. Every ne’er do well in the galaxy comes after Quill, including a pair of unlikely bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin in thrall to the Kree despot Ronan (Lee Pace). When Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are incarcerated together, they agree to a reluctant truce, and together with the vengeance-driven Drax (Dave Bautista) they plan to bust out and sell the orb, or at the very least survive whatever Ronan is about to throw at them.
After the prologue establishing how Peter Quill left Earth and ended up planet-hopping for kicks, we get a real introduction to Star-Lord. He lands his hot rod spacecraft on a forbidding alien planet, enters an ancient temple like a spacefaring Indiana Jones and…grooves his way across the room to the 80s tunes blasting out of his Walkman as the opening credits flash by. This opening gambit pretty much sets the tone for the film – it’s going to be a blast! Writer-director James Gunn loves odd combinations – the remarkable paired with the mundane, the old with the new, the brash with the subtle. The best evocation of Gunn’s sensibilities comes just before the film’s spectacular final act – our heroes have geared up and are striding down a corridor in slow-motion towards their final stand – classic hero stuff – apart from Rocket adjusting his jumpsuit’s crotch and Quill yawning widely.
The Guardians all bring a lot to the table. Chris Pratt has real star quality (pun intended) and bestows Peter Quill with a boatload of effortless charm and an endearing vulnerability in his eyes. Zoe Saldana plays it pretty low-key as the spiky Gamora, but she soon thaws and the horrors of her in the past begin to show through. We all knew the towering Dave Bautista would have the physicality to play Drax, but it turns out he also has an innate ability to communicate a lot through layer-upon-layer of prosthetics. Drax also gets a good percentage of the laughs from Bautista’s perfectly deadpan performance, and the fact that his species think almost entirely literally (“I am not a princess!”). Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel miraculously made me care deeply about a talking Raccoon and a walking tree. Rocket and Groot are both a marvelous marriage of performance and animation, and their double-act is among the most affecting things in the film. As a group, they’re a damaged, emotionally vulnerable bunch hiding behind a lot of attitude.
It’s a great feeling to be able to spend a couple of hours with a group of lively, fun, and ever so slightly depraved friends. It’s nice to look forward to the next time we’ll see these characters together rather than feeling the all-too-familiar fatigue of mega-franchises. It always helps when your core cast look like they had the time of their life making it, even when two of them are slathered in makeup, and another two are elaborate motion-captured SFX jobs.
Concerning the villains, Lee Pace’s Ronan is a more complex and better performed version of Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith from THOR: THE DARK WORLD – he doesn’t want to destroy planets just because, but as recompense for diplomatic injustices that weakened his homeworld’s position in the galaxy. Karen Gillan left Amy Pond behind in Cardiff, and proves to be a pretty darn terrifying as violet cyborg henchman Nebula. Michael Rooker is also fun as Yondu, the leader of a clan of colourfully foul and thuggish scavengers, and wields one of the coolest sci-fi weapons in recent memory – a floating, energy-tipped arrow he controls by whistling. John C. Reilly and Glen Close don’t have much to do as the leaders of the space constabulary Nova Corps besides valiantly keeping a straight face whilst saying silly names of people and planets, though Peter Serafinowicz manages to steal the couple of brief scenes he has, as a Nova officer with pure undiluted snark. Benicio del Toro, as the hoarder of shiny MacGuffins The Collector, proves to be as irrelevant to the plot as he is fabulously flamboyant.
I think I mentioned in a previous review that I love it when a film shows me something I’ve never seen before (tragically rare these days), and Guardians of the Galaxy has plenty on that score. A giant disembodied space head hosting a hive of scum and villainy, Groot providing a beautiful solution to his teammate’s lack of light, and Yondu not taking kindly to threats from a small army of soldiers all prove to be unforgettable spectacle.
Music is a big, and important, part of the film. Peter Quill’s only real connection to his past, his homeworld and his family is the Walkman and 70s/80s mixtape his mother gave him. Aside from adding colour to scenes and amusing tonal juxtapositions between image and sound, the music remains an important part of Star-Lord’s characterisation. He’s always on the search for a family to replace the one he lost on Earth, and he only has memories to keep him going until then. The music also allows for a terrific gag as the end credits roll.
Though the film is pretty DUNE-esque in aesthetic, the closest comparison I can make tonally speaking is THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Luc Besson’s film too had an epic scale, came in every colour of the rainbow, and gave equal weight to drama and comedy. There isn’t a sentient black hole to fight in this film, but there is a massive threat on the horizon for not only the Guardians, but their entire galaxy and beyond. Yes, the Mad Titan Thanos finally makes a proper appearance, if only for a single scene. After a pretty explicit callout to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (there’s kneeling, there’s a big hologram of an ugly dude in a hood), Ronan makes contact with Mr. Purple Chin to re-negotiate their nefarious deal for galactic domination. Thanos, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is voiced by Josh Brolin, and I’m sure they’ve tweaked his design since he first turned to camera at the end of THE AVENGERS to look a bit more like him, too. Maybe we’ll get to see him doing something other than standing or sitting next time.
What few criticisms I have of Guardians of the Galaxy are pretty inconsequential or even petty. The only one even worth mentioning in passing is that a Marvel film once again looks like it’s going to do something really bold and emotionally shattering at its conclusion, but then it chickens out at the last minute. But even this, a sin the studio has committed in its last three films, doesn’t bother me when I’ve had such a fantastic time watching the rest of the movie. It really was a near-perfect combination of vivid visuals, raucous humour and a disarming helping of heart and soul. The summer popcorn season goes out on a high. SSP