Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (***)

Directed by James Gunn


If we're considering Guardians of the Galaxy to be amongst the very best of the twenty-first century superheroes movies era - and it seems like we are - I think that most of it's success, and that which sets it apart from all the other films in this glutted genre, is it's commitment to being, first and foremost, a comedy. The Marvel Avengers series and its several component films blew past Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy in popularity because they refused to take themselves seriously (and because they had Robert Downey Jr.). Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't take itself seriously because it's, in fact, not a serious film. George Lucas caught a lot of grief for the amount of hacky humor, but few understand is that Star Wars transformed commercial filmmaking and science fiction cinema because people connected to the humor. If they hadn't, science fiction brands would have exploded in popularity a decade earlier with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm not sure any commercial franchise film has ever been closer to Star Wars than Guardians of the Galaxy and yet it feels incredibly unique, an Avengers with more edge, less kid-friendly. It's a superhero movie filled with particularly unheroic personalities.

Of course, we've been hearing about Guardians for close to a year now, and we've already been told about the arrival of its sequel in 2017, as well as its eventual connection to the Avengers series, which will create a Marvel hero orgy and the biggest nerdgasm the world has ever seen. Even if you love Guardians as much as the regular public (and I think I did), it's hard not to feel something slightly sinister behind the way Marvel is seemingly dictating what we will enjoy in the movie theaters, as opposed to the other way around. And yet, this film is very good. For director, they pegged James Gunn, who's previous credits showcase an appreciation for demented zombie flicks (Slither, the screenplay for 2004's Dawn of the Dead) and ink-black comedy (2010's Super was a hero movie spoof that's only memorable for its borderline nauseating violence). Gunn is obviously toning it down here, but he's not hiding. It felt like there was more four-letter words in this than the other Marvel films. Like Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy can be enjoyed by everyone, but this is not a childish fantasy that parents can also enjoy, it's a sci-fi adventure with adult sophistication and just enough whimsy so that the small kids won't fall asleep in their popcorn.

The film stars Chris Pratt, a charming actor who's worked for close to a decade now in supporting roles that are usually not much more than the handsome doofus. If you haven't already, watch Pratt's turn as Andy Dwyer in the brilliant NBC sitcom Parks and Recreations and you'll see just how deftly he can play stupidity. In Guardians, he's Peter Quill an American Earthling sucked up into a spaceship moments after finding out that his young mother has died (she's lying bald in a hospital bed, so we're left to assume it's cancer). Quill grows up aboard this ship filled with multi-colored men called the Ravagers who make their living by smuggling and thieving, and Quill is subsequently introduced to an entirely different way of life outside of his solar system. As an adult, Quill himself has become such a skilled smuggler that he's created his own second-rate fame in the outlaw community; and in this community, he prefers to go by the name Star Lord. The film's central plot begins when Quill lands on the planet Morag to intercept a highly-sought-after artifact, which he finds inside of a sphere-shaped case and quickly stows away. Immediately after, he's confronted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his collected army, who demand possession of the orb. It appears Quill is not the only person interested in acquiring this artifact.

Korath informs Quill that the orb is wanted by Ronan the Accuser, a murderous Kree and subordinate to the oppressive ruler Thanos. After a scrap, Quill is able to escape Morag with the orb where he tries to sell it on the planet Xandar, a domesticated world not too unlike Earth. The Ravagers, especially their leader Yondu (Michael Rooker), are not too happy that Quill has cut them out of the sale, and send a couple of bounty hunters to track him down. These bounty hunters come in the form of Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) a smart-talking raccoon who's the result of a horrific, abandoned science experiment; and Rocket's muscle partner Groot (Vin Diesel), a dim-witted tree figure who can only mutter a single phrase: "I am Groot". When Quill is unable to sell the orb - one mention of the bloodthirsty Ronan and the dealer wants no part of the sale - he's immediately attacked by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful assassin with highlighter-colored skin who's sent by Ronan to get the orb back. The fight that ensues between the four figures sets up a common theme through out this film's action sequences: brilliant fight choreography mixed with thematic haplessness; a lot of laughs are generated because the characters are never quite sure why they're fighting the people they are fighting.

All four of them are thrown into prison, where Gamora admits that it was her plan all along to betray Ronan and her adoptive father, Thanos. After having her family murdered, and her own self transformed into a thoughtless assassin, Gamora saw the orb as her only chance to escape from her horrific father figure. Her story doesn't fly too well in the prison, though, where nearly all the prisoners inside have been effected by Ronan's genocide against the Xandarian people, and see Gamora as a nice consolation prize to actual revenge. One prisoner in particular, Drax (Dave Bautista), is primed to murder Gamora, explaining the harrowing loss of his wife and daughter who were thoughtlessly slaughtered by Ronan himself. It's only Quill intervenes and explains to Drax that only with Gamora alive will he ever be able to get the vengeance he needs: killing Ronan himself. So all five - Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot - form a pact to break out of the prison, with Drax promised the chance to kill Ronan and the other four promising to split the earned money that will come with selling the orb. Of course, being a Marvel movie, we know that their journey will grow and shift away from the goals of self-interest and this team will band together to form the studio's newest string of misfits. We always know what's going to happen with these films, but some of them just do it better than others.

The film's screenplay is written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, and at times it seems needlessly complicated. There are several locations and planets, some with pun-ny names like 'Knowhere', and there are wars and peace treaties between several factions that would have been hard for me to remember if the film didn't already have it's own very detailed Wikipedia page. There's also Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close playing characters that seem to be visually influenced by Liberace. There are so many building blocks in this film, establishing not only this film's story but the eventual merging of the entire Marvel universe, that there's not too much room left for character. Pratt's Quill is given the back story of a dying mother which felt contrived at the film's opening and even more so when it ends up playing a hand (no pun intended - spoiler alert) at the film's conclusion. All of the other Guardians have their motivations canned into single scene monologues, except for Groot who has only one thing to say about his past: "I Am Groot". The script's greatest strength is its dialogue, which is brought to vivid life by its cast, in particular Pratt, Cooper and Bautista. Bautista has "acted" as a WWE wrestler since 2000, but his performance here, covered in blue body paint and littered with red symbols across his hulking body, is an astonishing relocation of his physical assets and a perfect use of his bullying physique.

The film's direction is another story. Gunn's management of ensemble and his crafting of visual spectacle is quite impressive. That he allows his characters to have actual moments within these intimidating sequences (which no doubt cost tens of thousands of dollars, per take) is a commitment consistent with the latest wave of Marvel films. They actually seem concerned with making sure that you care about the people that you're watching. Guardians is a lot like Avengers in tone and scope, though Guardians doesn't have the benefit of several origin-creating films preceding it - it has to do that all on its own, which makes it a miracle that the film is only two hours long. Avengers probably has the better villain, though it should be said that Loki is the only antagonist figure in any of these films that has been even remotely compelling. In Guardians, Ronan is played by Lee Pace, slathered in body paint and head-dressing, and croaking his dialogue to those in front of him. It's a fine performance and Pace is a dependable actor, but it doesn't ever conger up any real danger. Like a lot of these super villains, he's completely unstoppable until he isn't, and Guardians is a lot like a  countdown until we see how Ronan's defenses are punctured.

Guardians of the Galaxy is primed to be the breakout hit of the Summer, which is funny considering that there was never any other possible conclusion. This would have been a mega-hit even if it was terrible. Just look at the Transformers franchise. The fact that it's actually, you know, very good is a bit like icing. This kind of grading curve is what gives me night terrors that we'll soon be seeing nothing but comic book franchises in the movie theaters; a rash of films raking in billions of dollars simply by "not sucking". But Guardians rises above simple, audience-pleasing mediocrity, displaying the greatest example of science-fiction as entertainment since George Lucas made it most popular in the late 70's. It's no coincidence that Quill's most prized possession is a walkman tape player which includes a mixed tape of his mother's favorite songs from the 60's and 70's. Gunn was raised in the 70's, and it's not a stretch to think that he likes these songs just as much as Quill does. The music scores quite a bit of the film, and whatever it doesn't, Tyler Bates picks up the slack. It's an inspired choice, even if it is a little obvious at times, but it creates a nostalgia for a film while we're watching it. Even with it's leaky script, it's still the most fun I've had during a movie in a very long time.

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