Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Dir. James Gunn. Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Based upon the comic of the same name by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, and Lee Pace. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. Running time: 121 minutes.
Wow, did Marvel Studios market this one hard or what? Even with the release of several sequels before it, Guardians has commanded the studio’s most high-profile release since The Avengers. None of the characters involved have any established familiarity with audiences outside of the comics community, and hell, even within that community they’re small potatoes compared to Iron Man or Hulk.
So what’s the attraction? Maybe it’s the promise of something different–wacky characters, offbeat humor, a retro soundtrack dangling in the vastness of space. The film certainly delivers that difference, but I wish if it had gone even further and ditched the tiresome Marvel movie trappings.
We’re off to a rather unconventional start, as a young boy is hit with a one-two punch: losing his mother to cancer, than being abducted by aliens. Fast-forward 26 years, and the man who will eventually lead the Guardians is Peter Quill (call him Star-Lord, if you please). He a junker, a thief and swashbuckler of sorts. Chris Pratt plays him like a combination of Errol Flynn and Bart Simpson.
We meet up with Quill as he retrieves an artifact called the “orb,” dancing his way past booby-traps and kicking monsters out of the way, defying the forbidding landscape so deftly established. Between this and his role in The Lego Movie, Pratt is having a monster year.
But can the film maintain such a hilariously cavalier attitude throughout? Well…yes and no. Right after that scene, we’re treated to rushed expositional history about the bad guy’s motivations. This is one hell of a funny (and sometimes subversive) movie, but the seemingly ironclad Rule of Marvel Blockbusters has ensured it never strays far from the familiar: plenty of conventional action scenes, sequel-baiting, money shots, and unabashed sentimentality. It’s as if Marvel stood by during filming and said, “Not too different, James.”
Odd, but not overly so, is the name of the game. So too describes the eventual team that Quill enlists—a motley crew who reveal hearts of gold. There’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, a traitor to the antagonist, Ronan the Accuser. There’s Dave Bautista’s beefy Drax the Destroyer, a heavily tattooed behemoth of a man who vows revenge on Ronan for murdering his wife and daughter. And of course we have the dynamic duo of anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket and his Chewbacca-esque anthropomorphic tree friend, Groot.
Gunn seems extremely aware of the absurdity of his characters, but manages to make them a crew worth following. Cooper does arguably his best work as Rocket, a role that could have been utterly insufferable with the wrong actor. The grungy voice stays grounded in the character’s awareness of himself as genetic abomination. Meanwhile, Vin Diesel gives an Iron Giant-level performance, making use of multiple inflections for the only three words he can say: “I am Groot.”
With its alien races, Macguffins, and quirky humor, Guardians plays like a B-movie with Grade A-movie designs. Toting a $170 million budget, the film boasts impressive weather-beaten vistas and psychedelic nebulas. And despite the Marvel label, it’s more space opera than superhero movie. There’s a real sense of size and scope to the movie even though it has modest ambitions in terms of the story it wants to tell. Gunn is at his best when he’s distracting you from the banality of another “powerful artifact” search.
Alas, the film disappoints when it comes to its females. Zoe Saldana is game, but the script doesn’t have anything for her to really sink her teeth into. She’s the token female good guy, destined to face off against the token female bad guy (Karen Gillan’s Nebula). Sure, she kicks butt, shares insider knowledge, but she ultimately has little impact on the story (and why does she need to be rescued?). I’m not sure what it says when a talking raccoon is more interesting than an intergalactic assassin.
Ultimately, the likability of the characters, a well-chosen soundtrack, and mostly consistent laughs keeps the momentum going. I just wish the film hadn’t settled for corny resolutions—we’re still seeing the same clichés about a group of misfits banding together. It’s certainly the funniest Marvel movie I’ve seen, but that doesn’t change the fact that at its core, we’ve been here before. It entertains. But is it too much to ask for a little more?
–The CineMaverick, 8/8/2014