Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
WRITERS: JAMES GUNN and NICOLE PERLMAN
DIRECTOR: JAMES GUNN
RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 1 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest in the series of films from Marvel Studios, a space faring romp through the cosmos with a gleefully anarchic sense of fun. Director James Gunn helms the film, working with fellow screenwriter Nicole Perlman in telling a story of a group of misfits out among the stars confronting threats and learning to work together. The roots in comics reach back decades, when a team by that name was first formed in the pages of Marvel Comics, having adventures a thousand years in the future. The configuration of these characters, however, goes to the writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who several years ago were heavily involved in writing the cosmic side of things at Marvel. Abnett and Lanning took a group of star faring characters who had been around at Marvel for years, joining forces and taking the name of the previous team. The core of that group helm this movie, and the film's story owes much to Abnett and Lanning's work. There is an ongoing series being published at the moment with the team, though I advise you to avoid it entirely- it is being written by the worst writer in the industry, a man who just happens to be the best friend of Marvel's head honcho.
The film opens up in the past, when we meet Peter Quill, a boy whose mother has just died. He is abducted by space pirates, led by the alien Yondu (Michael Rooker), and taken into the stars. Years later as an adult, Quill (Chris Pratt) has taken to calling himself Star-Lord and is in the midst of stealing a mysterious orb when he is intercepted by another alien, Korath (Djimon Hounsou). The orb itself, it turns out, happens to contain an Infinity Stone, something that can tend to be very dangerous in the wrong hands. His theft attracts other attention beyond Korath: Gamora the assassin (Zoe Saldana) is dispatched after him.
Two bounty hunter partners, a genetically altered raccoon called Rocket and a walking tree called Groot get mixed up into the mess. The interstellar peacekeeping Nova Corps arrest the lot and throw them into a cosmic prison, the Kyln, where they encounter another entity, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Drax has a grudge or two against Gamora, because of her association with a big bad named Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan is a particularly nasty fellow (at least in this movie; the comics version has tread the line from acting as an antagonist to an ally). Gamora, however, isn't loyal to Ronan, and the group find themselves banding together, first to escape, and then to deal with the grave threat Ronan and his allies pose against the galaxy as a whole.
Gunn and Perlman's story leans heavily on the influences of Abnett and Lanning, and yet tells a story that stands on its own quite well. It stands apart from the previous Marvel films in that it sets its story out among the stars, and it infuses a sense of humour into the proceedings. This reflects itself in the makeup of the team, who are brought together not particularly in a voluntary way, and bicker with each other all along. It reflects itself in small ways- the incredibly bad taste of music on Quill's Walkman (his mother's musical inclinations, was, in a word, awful), or the way no one takes Quill's personal nickname seriously. Quill himself is written as a rogue, a fish out of water with an influence of Han Solo about him, a snarky and sarcastic character. The snarkiness certainly extends to another member of the team, the cranky Rocket, a motormouth voiced by Bradley Cooper. The story, over all, builds on the classic cinematic notion of a Maguffin (the heretofore mentioned mysterious orb) that everyone wants, and while it has all of the sci-fi action you would expect out of a comic book adaptation, the story has fun with itself, in the way that a good sci-fi film ought to be.
The special effects serve the story well. Having a story set out in the stars offers a variety of realms, and special effects and CGI render these realms in different ways. The world of Xandar, home of the Nova Corps, is an orderly - somewhat too orderly - world, clean and sterile somewhat. Other places are murky, particularly the Kyln or Knowhere, a refuge the team take to. That gloom extends to the lairs of Ronan, or his patron Thanos, who we've seen before. By contrast, the archives of the Collector is a place of the bizarre, and that comes across in the special effects. At times, of course, and that's to be expected in a comic book adaptation, the action can overwhelm the story, with the explosive pyrotechnics you'd expect, but it didn't become tedious at all to me.
Where the CGI and special effects particularly come out so well are in the renderings of two main characters. Groot and Rocket certainly come across as inhabiting the same space as the actors. Part of this might involve motion capture, the techniques being used in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films to such good effect. The snarky raccoon very much feels like he's scurrying about on gangways and in starships, just as much as his lumbering partner Groot comes across as a cohesive, real presence in the shots. Best of all - neither of the pair come across in the same obnoxious way as an infamous certain Star Wars character (Jar-Jar Binks, I'm looking at you).
The cast make the most of their parts. For some it's taking things more seriously (villains tend to be quite serious, after all). For others, they're having something of a romp playing their roles, even if they can't quite show it. Glenn Close turns up as the head of the Nova Corps, and she plays the role with authority, albeit little tolerance and patience for nonsense and backtalk. She certainly comes across as a believable leader, and it's a pleasure to see her playing a very different part from what you might expect. John C. Reilly is one of her lieutenants in the Corps, and he gives his character something of a more sardonic quality. Michael Rooker, a character actor who's been in movies and television for years, plays Yondu with a slightly shifty moral worldview and a gruffness that you'd expect out of the actor from previous roles - but I liked him regardless. Benicio Del Toro returns as the Collector, after an appearance in Thor: The Dark World. He's an eccentric sort of character, an elder being of the universe who seems to have a bit of a Liberace flamboyance about him, and a fondness for odd items. He plays the part as the weirdo a comics fan would imagine the Collector to be.
Djimon Hounsou has been around for years as an actor too, playing in historical dramas, action films, and more, often in memorable character roles. He plays the Kree Korath as the capable subordinate to Ronan, and gives him a rather impatient quality. There's an appearance by Josh Brolin as well, doing the voice of Thanos (a villain we'll see again). The character is as menacing as he'll continue to be down the line, and it was a good touch to give him the role. Karen Gillan plays a particularly unhinged character named Nebula. She and Gamora have connections, but are at each other's throats. I haven't seen her in anything before, but she gives Nebula a formidable, manic quality that I liked. Lee Pace has been appearing in The Hobbit films as the elven king Thranduil, and here he plays Ronan with conviction and weight. Ronan as a character has often been a villain, but sometimes not, and Pace gives him a serious, determined, and ruthless quality that you'd expect in an antagonist. His Ronan feels dangerous indeed.
The new Raina
Groot (with Rocket)
Vin Diesel voices Groot - which is actually an easy job. Probably because Groot actually only speaks three words (though Rocket understands the differing meaning of those three words). I found myself wondering if Diesel got into a recording booth, did a few takes, and was done with his part for the film, or if there was motion capture involved. Bradley Cooper does the voice for Rocket, who tends to chatter a lot. This is a mixed factor for me. I didn't mind Cooper back when he was a cast member of Alias, but at some point after that, when he became famous, I began feeling a profound dislike of the actor. Fame seemed to get to his head, and frankly, the guy comes across as a complete sleazebag. That said, however, I didn't find myself distracted by that dislike. Perhaps just having the voice was a factor in that; I was listening to the character instead of the actor. Had he actively been appearing on screen, I might have felt different, but he does capture the snarkiness and crankiness of Rocket as I would expect.
Dave Bautista comes from a background in professional wrestling, so we're not talking about a formal actor here, but he actually does well as Drax. The character is a blunt force of nature, a wall of muscle driven by the idea of avenging the death of his family. Bautista really does look the part, and gives the character a threatening, physical presence. Yet there's also in his role a degree of sympathy that we can relate to. There is much tragedy in the man, and Bautista conveys that. It's actually a surprise, because I wouldn't have expected that of a wrestler.
Gamora and Star-Lord
Zoe Saldana has been doing quite a bit of sci-fi in the last few years. She was in that miserable wretched excuse for a blockbuster otherwise known as Avatar (what can I say? I hate Avatar), and she's been a key player in the two Star Trek reboots under director J.J. Abrams. She plays Gamora as I would expect. The character is a thoroughly dangerous woman, and yet with multiple layers. She keeps much to herself, and yet is driven by a conscience and awareness of the right thing to do. She guards herself closely, but acts with courage and without hesitation when the stakes are high. Gamora finds herself puzzled by her comrades at times, impatient at others, and Saldana conveys these qualities in her performance, grounding the role in the character's need for redemption. She also brings good chemistry to her role with the last of the major players.
This is actually the first time I've seen Chris Pratt in any role. He's been on the series Parks and Recreation for years, and a look at his filmography reveals that he was in the tense Zero Dark Thirty film, but I have never seen his work. He plays the part with sarcastic glee, starting off as a man out of his element, out for himself. Placed into a crisis, however, he seems to come into his own, finding a sense of meaning for himself. He certainly exercises some of the disdain for authority that you would expect in Han Solo, for example, and I liked that, but when push comes to shove, he gives Quill a sense of leadership that feels natural for the progression of the story. Pratt's performance becomes part of the fun of the film, and a nice revelation to the viewer who's first being introduced to him as an actor.
Guardians of the Galaxy especially cranks up the sense of fun at the box office. It features a motley group of misfits thrown into cosmic stakes danger, moves the story along at a brisk pace, and brings a good sense of humour to the proceedings. I had fun with this film; I think you will too. Even if the post-credits sequence features an extremely unwelcome character that should be cast into a black hole with all possible speed.