Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Starship Joyride: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Chances are you've heard of Guardians of the Galaxy, or at least seen its characters splashed on huge billboards or across the side of a bus. Marvel has poured massive, unconcealed energy and cash into the marketing campaign for this film, making a hard and unmistakable push to recreate the success of its previous smash hit, The Avengers. Comparisons to that film, as well as Star Wars, Serenity, and many other similar ensemble feel-good cosmic fantasy blockbusters are inevitable. And I feel confident in saying that, if you're a fan of those types of film, you'd be unwise to ignore the ads: Guardians is fun, hilarious, action-packed, and I can't wait to see it again. Seriously, do you need someone to go with? Send me a message, I'm in.

I think part of the reason that Marvel pushed so hard on the ad campaign was due to the fact that Guardians represents a gargantuan bet on an untested horse. Before the film was officially announced at San Diego Comic Con 2012, I'd be surprised if even Marvel Cinematic Universe die-hards had ever heard of Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, or Rocket Raccoon. It's not as though Marvel was scraping the bottom of the barrel if they wanted to do that, they'd finally make that movie about Dazzler but it's intriguing that they'd choose to hang their hopes (and an indecent amount of money) on an IP that is essentially unknown to film audiences. This makes Guardians a film with something to prove and director James Gunn steps up to the plate, offering a strong and passionate production as a result.

Michael Rooker as Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians is the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation), who was abducted from Earth as a child by a space pirate named Yondu (Michael Rooker) and now flies “solo” through the stars as a roguish playboy and charming adventurer-for-hire. After stealing a mysterious orb, he is incarcerated in an alien prison and must enlist the help of a team of squabbling misfits in order to escape, and prevent the peaceful world Xandar from being destroyed by Ronan (Lee Pace), a fanatical alien overlord. In addition to the wisecracking Quill (who would really prefer people call him “Star-Lord”, in a very Jack Sparrow kind of way), there’s the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), daughter of Avengers baddie Thanos; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a scarred and heavily-muscled mercenary; Rocket (Bradley Cooper, American Hustle), a cynical, tech-obsessed raccoon with anger issues; and his partner Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a humanoid plant who only communicates through the phrase, “I am Groot”.Three guesses as to whether this plucky band of miscreants eventually manages to learn to work as a team by helping everyone set aside their differences.

The setup is simple, but the execution is peerless – Guardians is not just coherent, but broadly engaging. As a student of fantasy and SF of all kinds, I'm no stranger to strangeness, but I'm willing to bet that even Grandma will find herself emotionally invested in this tale of talking trees and homicidal raccoons. This is because the basics of cinematic storytelling are respected here, making something as nonsensical as an blue-skinned alien bounty hunter with a Southern drawl an accessible feature rather than a confusing oversight. This is a heightened, fantastical world, and as long as you can suspend your disbelief, the film will repay you with effortless humour, dazzling action, and compelling characters.

With such a seemingly formulaic cast of heroes and villains, the film consistently surprises by overturning the tropes you expect. Characters which I had already drawn in my mind as rote and uninteresting (like the token “muscle” Drax and the “I’m the kickass girl” Gamora) turned out to be some of the most captivating of all – Drax especially, whose “Can You Tell I’m The Character Who Punches Things” appearance suggests a far less nuanced character than the one we get. Most importantly: everything is motivated. Each character had a clear arc, everyone had something to do, every character (even minor ones like Quill’s kidnapper, the space-hillbilly Yondu) were given their time to shine. There isn’t a dull frame in this film and it’s because we understand what is happening and why, and more importantly, we care (which really should go unspoken as a prerequisite, but I’m still grateful enough to recognize it here). Ronan, as the main antagonist, has neither a cool and memorable name nor a very interesting character, though his costume is weirdly unsettling, and he’s played with just enough ham by Lee Pace (he of elven snobbery in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). I was more pleased by the increased screentime given to Thanos (an uncredited Josh Brolin), whose “galaxy-dominating space dictator” comic-book archetype has been a favourite of mine since Doctor Doom. Michael Rooker, who showed grit and a fine aptitude for comedy in The Walking Dead and Slither, sinks his sharpened teeth into the slimy and hilarious Yondu, and even John C. Reilly and Peter Serofinawicz, two comedy veterans from different sides of the pond, poke out their heads for solid supporting performances.

Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper)
The script is worth applauding, too – although the dialogue doesn’t quite climb to Joss Whedon heights of steel-tipped wit, there’s plenty of snark to go around, and the cast handles the comedic elements brilliantly. This is a sexier, more hypercharged fantasy than the recent Star Trek films, in which racy “did they just get away with that” lines are commonplace (like when Gamora expresses her disgust over Quill’s “filthy” ship, to which he quips that she has no idea, and that if he had a blacklight it would “look like a Jackson Pollack painting”). The only speed bumps along the way are a result of some shoehorned dramatic beats, but these are few and far between.(Also, as usual, 3D adds little to the experience, and serves mostly to smudge and darken the film’s rich and striking visuals.)

It’s so very Star Wars – they’re both space fantasies, both operatic and adventurous, both have rogueish, dashing, silver-tongued leads and kickass female love interests, both feature imaginative worlds with great creature effects and visual design (a highlight in Guardians being the space colony Knowhere, which is built within a massive, ever-drfting metal skull, the decapitated remnant of an ancient and vastly powerful being). J.J. Abrams had better roll up his sleeves. The bar for quality in this kind of film, presented in an updated and relevant way, has ben set.

Whether or not one feels they've received sufficient entertainment value for their box office dollar dictates how most people judge the movies they see. It's a simple metric: did you get your money's worth, or not? Based on the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the audience I shared a screening with, Guardians of the Galaxy creates an experience that's not just satisfactory, but exemplary. I can't recommend the film more highly than to say that yes, ticket prices are prohibitive, but this time, pony up: I can pretty much guarantee that you, your friends, and your family will have the most fun you've had in a theatre in a long time.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.  

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