Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The opening of Guardians of the Galaxy is a scene set in 1988 that shows us a boy named Peter Jason Quill dealing with the death of his mother. The scene gives us insight on what will become an important part of his character, but it also helps us by starting the movie in familiar surroundings. When we flash ahead to Quill as an adult, played by Chris Pratt, there is no hesitation in throwing us into a very alien, sci-fi world. Knowing a bit about Quill's background gives us something to hold onto and use as an anchor in all the weirdness. Quill's Walkman serves the same purpose, tying us back to Earth by allowing familiar music to play over an alien landscape.

The fact that the movie isn't afraid to go with sci-fi concepts that are more extreme than we usually see in mainstream movies is great, but if it had jumped right in without any viewer preparation, it could have been disorientating. As it is, some of the early scenes are a bit confusing, with several characters being introduced at the same time without allowing us to get a firm grip on any of them at first. Once the movie gets going, it thankfully transitions between characters and locations more smoothly.

There's no point in going any farther into the specifics of the story because this movie is about the "hows" and not the "whats." It's the characters that push each scene forward and make us want to keep watching. In fact, the only dull scenes in the movie are the plot-based ones focusing on the villains. The heroic characters all have distinct personalities and entertaining interactions, but the villains are bland, undefined action figures.

Although it is something of an ensemble/team movie, Pratt's Quill is unquestionably the main character, and comes out feeling the most rounded out of all of them by far. Bradley Cooper does a surprisingly good job as Rocket, who has a very brotherly relationship with talking tree Groot (adequately voiced by Vin Diesel).

Zoe Saldana's Gamora, an assassin who turns on villain Angry Screaming Man--er, sorry, Ronan the Accuser--could have used some work. She tells us why she switched sides, but we never get a real sense of her feelings behind everything. Her interactions with the others, especially Quill, are fine in themselves, but she feels too trusting and friendly for her background.

In general, the group comes together a bit too quickly. Remember in Star Wars, how Luke had to keep persuading Han to help him, promising to pay him later? Then when they get to Yavin, Han says "so long" and takes off? It's not until the very end, when he shows up again to save Luke from Vader's TIE at the climax of the entire movie that we see his change of heart. No so in Guardians. Sure, the characters argue a lot (resulting in some of the most fun moments in the movie), but the way things play out still isn't quite convincing.

The standout character for me was Dave Bautista's Drax. Looking at him, you wouldn't expect the excellent comedic timing that he brings to the super-serious, completely literal character. It all comes out of the writing though, and there are lots of great exchanges between characters and funny little moments. Some of the jokes aim a little too broadly, and a few of the line deliveries don't quite work like they should, but none of them fall completely flat. The style of humor and overall tone of the movie reminded me of Serenity, which makes sense, with that movie's writer/director Joss Whedon currently being a sort of creative overseer at Marvel.

Guardians of the Galaxy also feels like a throwback to '80s adventure films like Ghostbusters, The Monster Squad, etc, from the songs and how they are used, to the all-pervasive humor, to the story (not to mention all the Star Wars references, from the Han and Chewie relationship between Rocket and Groot, to the straight-out-of-Empire scene with Ronan's Vader talking to Thanos's Emperor via hologram). We don't see space movies with a sense of fun anymore. Hell, we hardly see movies with a sense of fun to them at all.

Director James Gunn achieved a similar tone before, in 2006's Slither, which is a fantastic horror comedy that I recommend to absolutely everybody. It's no surprise that he brings back several cast members from that movie in Guardians, most notably Michael Rooker as Yondu, Quill's abductor/mentor. Gunn's dark sense of humor makes a return as well, giving this movie by far the strongest sense of individual personality of all the Marvel Studios offerings. You can tell this is the movie Gunn really wanted to make, which makes Edgar Wright's departure from Ant-Man all the more disappointing (but we're not going to go into that right now).

If only that sense of fun had carried over to the villains. Ronan looks like he does in the comics, sure, but, as with many of the Marvel Studios villains, he's just a fill-in. We get his motivation, but as with Gamora, telling us something isn't the same as showing us. We know what he wants, but don't get a feel for why he feels so strongly about it. Having him yell a lot isn't enough to create a sense of menace either. The movie tries to show us how much of a badass he is by having him stand up to Thanos, but we don't know anything about Thanos either, so we don't care.

Speaking of Thanos, he barely shows up here, but when he does, he looks terrible. It makes me wonder if they tried to hold off on doing those scenes in case they got leaked, then didn't have enough time to fine tune the CGI (yes, he is all CGI--why, I don't know). Josh Brolin's performance comes out being very disappointing too. He couldn't have had much to work with, but Thanos ends up just being some guy. Even the one shot of him in Avengers gave him a hundred times more personality.

Karen Gillan looks great as blue-skinned Nebula...and that's about all there is to say about her.

Benicio del Toro's Collector isn't quite a villain in this movie, which fits because he is actually interesting, with weird mannerisms and eccentric way of speaking. He doesn't end up being very important unfortunately, but hopefully he'll show up again in the future.

I haven't mentioned anything else about how this movie relates to the other Marvel movies because Guardians of the Galaxy is a different movie for Marvel Studios. Up until now, all of their films (this is their tenth) have tied directly into each other in ways that even the most oblivious of audiences would be able to detect. This one does so in ways that are more tangential, making for much more of a standalone film than any of the others. Apart from the line before the credits, "The Guardians of the Galaxy will return," it doesn't even tease any sequels. Anyone who didn't watch any of the other Marvel movies could watch this one and not even realize it had anything to do with them. Instead of approaching this movie from its standpoint within the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe as they are calling it, it makes more sense to look at it as simply a space adventure movie. Yes, the movie is part of that same universe, yes, the characters are taken directly from the comics (although a lot of their specific attributes and characteristics aren't quite the same), and yes, most of the background elements come from the comics too, but the story is original to the movie and many of those background elements are only there because they happen to fit what the story requires. That isn't to say that the movie doesn't feel respectful to the source material, or that the movie doesn't fit into that universe, it just feels like its own thing.

That may be a disappointing aspect of it for people who are looking for something to push the overall MCU farther, but it makes the movie itself work much better. Guardians tells a complete, satisfying story that doesn't feel compromised to fit in with anything else or to leave room for sequels or spinoffs.

At the same time, the movie is a part of the MCU, and while it doesn't seem to affect things too much on a story level (despite the brief appearances by Thanos), it does extend the boundaries of the universe in other ways. Through Thor, we've encountered aliens and other planets, but this movie goes all-out, giving us many different races, several different planets, an explanation for the Infinity Stones, and even the introduction of the Celestials. It really feels like a whole new universe in a lot of ways. Apart from Quill himself, there is almost nothing related to Earth at all.

Even in the comics, the cosmic side of things tends to be somewhat separate from the Earth stuff. You don't usually see earthbound characters like Spider-Man or Iron Fist dealing with godlike superbeings in space. Characters like the Fantastic Four do overlap, but when you pick up a cosmic comic, you expect a distinctly different set of characters, like the Silver Surfer (currently at Fox, unfortunately), Nova, Quasar, etc. It's a different part of the universe, and it makes sense that not everything comes back to Earth.

Either way, this movie opens up a lot of new doors for types of characters that would have seemed out of place popping up in an Iron Man or Captain America. It's the first time Marvel has tried to do something outside of traditional superheroes, and Gunn's attachment to the sequel has me very excited for what comes next.

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