Aug 4, 2014

'Guardians of the Galaxy' Is The Space Epic We've Been Waiting For

"When we are in our infancy, we look to the stars. We look to the sky, stretched out above us, full of mysteries unexplored, dangers untold, and thirsts unquenched. Space is the future; space is hope; space is where all the cool people are hanging out without us." -  Helen Keller

It would be an astronomical understatement to say that I really love Guardians of the Galaxy, the most recent – and buoyant – film in the Marvel franchise. Following a ragtag group of underdogs as they fight against seemingly unbeatable foes, the film is a love letter to movies about space, movies about friendship, and movies about kick-ass soundtracks.

The ragtag group in question is led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a Terran (film-speak for 'from Earth) who, after his mother dies of cancer, is abducted by a race of bluish, alien thugs and grows up as a thief,  with an awesome mix tape as his only keepsake of home. He's joined by a  sassy raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a somewhat-sentient tree named Groot (Vin Diesel), the overly-literal and revenge-bent Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and the genetically-modified assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, joining yet another space-film franchise). The plot is dense, and pretty MacGuffin-laden, but basically there's a super-bad dude named Ronan (Lee Pace, completely unrecognizable without his lustrous eyebrows) who's aided by Gamora's quasi-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, a little out of her depth here) and an even badder dude named Thanos (who will feature heavily in many of the Marvel movies to come). Though their motivations are murky and full of backstabbing and frontstabbing, they all basically want to get their hands on a mysterious orb, which Quilly has just stolen, in order kill a bunch of people. Oh, yeah, and for a fun bit of back-story, Thanos killed Drax's family and happens to be Gamora's adoptive father. The 'Guardians' have to band together to stop Ronan, and save an entire planet of people, including a bunch of space cops holed up at the base of the Nova Corps, which is run by the stellar Glenn Close.

Now, I really liked this movie, but I'm afraid that, if I start to review it, I may never stop talking about it. So, instead, here is a list of  points worth talking about:
  • Chris Pratt is great as Peter Quill, and it's a long-awaited jump to the A-list for the actor who's had memorable parts in Parks and Recreation, The O.C., and Everwood.  He's a charismatic and delightfully funny actor who is still able to anchor the film's more emotional moments. Still, it's Rocket the Raccoon that steals the show, and it's due in no small part to Bradley Cooper (and Sean Gunn's green-screen work). Who knew that he was such an accomplished voice actor?
  • I love space movies where everything feels old and lived-in. Films like the original Star Wars trilogy or Firefly/Serenity will always be superior to films like Star Trek (the reboot), Avatar, and the Star Wars prequels because everything in the former group feels like it has a history – nothing is new. Guardians has that type of oldness in spades. It's a universe that's comfortable with itself. Nobody and nothing is putting on airs.
  • Colors!
  • The movie is hella funny. The universe is full of characters who are super literal, which means that people are constantly befuddled by Quill's 'Terran' jargon and Rocket's sassy sass mouth.

  • One of the downsides of Marvel creating such a streamlined development model for their movies is that sometimes plots feel like setups to later films rather than actual plots. The orb that's at the center of this film is really just a vehicle to get people to talk about the Infinity Gauntlet, which is an awe-inspiring weapon that isn't going to be a main focal point until the third Avengers movie. So, sometimes what's happening on screen feels like it doesn't matter, since viewers already know that the plot is building towards something bigger to be explored in later films.
  • Personality color-coding abounds: Green people are crafty/smart, blue people are evil/shady, and pink people are laser fodder and/or slutty.
  • The plot is DENSE. Granted, this is partially due to the fact that all the characters featured are new – there's no shorthand. When the Avengers get together as a group in The Avengers, viewers had already spent a significant time with all of the characters individually. Four of the six of them (Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America) had their own movies and the other two (Black Widow and Hawkeye) had been mentioned and featured in at least one movie. When they all show up on screen, you're already happy to see them. With Guardians, five origin films are crammed into one movie. 
  • The fight/action sequences are really well-done. Director James Gunn has a knack for mixing big moments (exploding spaceships, kamikaze warriors, prison escapes) with small, character moments. Plus, the fights are choreographed beautifully. So many fights are like beautifully orchestrated dance moves. Everyone's so lithe-limbed.
  • Karen Gillan (as robot baddie Nebula) is... not super believable. As she noted during her interview at Philly Comic-Con, it's not easy to buy her as a credible threat. She's just too lanky, and she's also not great at disguising her Scottish accent.
  • In general, the women in this movie are under-served. Zoe Saldana and Gillan have an interesting dynamic as two sisters torn apart by different allegiances (and because one of them is legit crazy). But that barely plays out on screen. 
  • Everyone has a character arc. We get sad, rejected-by-society Rocket and his faithful tree companion Groot. You get Drax's pain at the loss of his family and his anger that he's incapable of exacting revenge on the men responsible. You have Gamora, who's spent her entire life under the thumb of the most powerful maniac in the galaxy and his still having trouble outrunning his grasp. And you have Peter, the lost orphan searching for answers and whose moral code gets in the way of his profession. That's a lot to deal with, and that's before plot enters in! 
  • Michael Rooker is magnetic and should win all the awards for his portrayal as thief/scavenger/surrogate parent Yondu Udonta. Actually, the name 'Yondu Udonta' should win all the awards for being the name 'Yondu Udonta'
  • The movie has a great ability to burn through plot without a lot of hand-holding. The audience is constantly off-balance, trying to catch up to the characters, and that energy is electric. This movie is so much fun to watch, because you nobody is ever safe and nothing is ever stagnant.
Dancing Groot is the best Groot
  • Groot is a delight. He's basically the Chewbacca of this movie, using the three words he knows ("I am Groot") to intone all manner of emotions. Plus, he dances like a boss.
  • Movie soundtracks have played an important part in my life. Soundtracks teach me how to feel feelings. And with Guardians of the Galaxy, the soundtrack makes you feel all the feelings, and it also features heavily in the plot. Music as plot? Glorious!
  • John C. Reilly (along with Peter Serafinowicz and Glenn Close) is great as an elite member of the Nova Corps. Like many Marvel movies before it, this movie is emphatically pro-police force.

While I hesitate to call this the best Marvel movie yet (especially sans Loki), it is fantastic. It's confident, fun, and emotionally satisfying. The actors are all top-notch, the battle sequences are well-filmed, the small character moments work like gangbusters (when they aren't being ignored), and the whole thing moves at a delightfully frenetic pace. So, go see it. And buy the soundtrack, because it's aces.

Film Grade: 5 out of 6 Infinity Stones

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