I’ve been saying for months now that this is the Summer of Good Sci-Fi (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) but the one that needed to be good in order to make this theory of mine hold the proper amount of water was the biggest wild card, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but in many ways a huge risk, considering that it takes place somewhere other than Earth and uses characters only the staunchest of comic book fans will have heard of. All it had to do was be good. Not great, not perfect, just good. Luckily it was great and almost perfect so I shouldn’t have worried at all. I don’t think I’ve seen a more enjoyable, exciting, and FUNNY sci-fi movie, maybe ever.
Marvel’s first full foray into their Cosmic titles, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t feel much like the movies the company has made in the past, and that’s a good thing. There isn’t a “superhero” to latch onto or anything close to the kind of troubles we’ve seen in any of the other films. Even the massive planet-in-danger finale felt like a completely different take on the the idea; certainly it’s nowhere like what happened in The Avengers or Thor: The Dark World which are the closest in terms of scope and spaceyness. With a healthy amount of references to Star Wars, allusions to things like The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen, and way more jokes, heart, and character development than anyone could have imagined, Guardians is a here of a fun two hours.
The story’s main Guardian is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earth kid who is abducted by aliens on possibly the worst and most painful day of his young life. 20 years later, Quill, calling himself “Star-Lord,” is a thief working for blue space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker). Quill enters a temple and steals an orb that he doesn’t know why it’s important, he just knows it’s worth a lot. Unfortunately, someone else is looking for the orb. Guards working for the Kree zealot Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) are aiming to give the orb to him so that the nasty blue fellow can fulfill his desire for vengeance against the seemingly peaceful world of Xandar.
After managing to get away from the guards, and double-crosses Yondu, Quill attempts to sell the orb himself. Unfortunately, now lots of people want to get him. Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin and adopted daughter of the evil Thanos, to retrieve the orb, much to the chagrin of Thanos’ actual daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan). And also, Yondu has placed a bounty on Quill’s head and genetically engineered Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his monosyllabic humanoid tree friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) want to collect. After a big scuffle, which is but one of the film’s highlights, all four end up at a massive intergalactic prison wherein they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a maniac who wants revenge on Ronan for the death of his family. Turns out, Gamora doesn’t like Ronan any more than the rest of them and they decide to team up to break out of prison and put the orb into safe hands, or at least well-paying hands. But nothing’s ever that simple, is it?
There is a LOT of plot going on at all times and I think one of the best things Gunn and his co-writer Nicole Perlman were able to do was give us all this plot in a way that didn’t feel like just a huge info-dump. This has to be one of the tightest and freshest scripts of any big-budget action movie of the past 20-some years. Every joke lands, every action is motivated by character, and the plot unfolds in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel forced or convenient. In fact, nothing is convenient for the Guardians and that’s why they’re so great; they actually have to work for what they’re getting.
Visually, this is simply a stunning movie. The colors and textures of everything pop off the screen, and not only because of the stereoscopy. The costumes and set design feel “real” and very space-age all at once, and the ships (which I was particularly excited to see) are cool looking. There are space battles and fistfights, chases and sight-gags, and even a touching moment (or seven), and Gunn shoots them all just about perfectly. I also applaud the use of makeup for a lot of the humanoid aliens and only CGI being used for Rocket and Groot, and our pal Thanos, of course. It gives the movie a tactile, throwback feel to space operas of the post-Star Wars ilk, when all we had were made-up people.
One of the best and most prevalent touches in the film, besides the dialogue, is the use of music. It’s built into the movie that Peter Quill’s mother gave him a mix tape when he was kid in 1988 and that it’s the only thing he has to remember her after he’s abducted. Songs from this tape, all pop, soul, and rock songs from the 1970s, play throughout the movie and are indicative of the tone the movie strikes. Quill is very much a human in the midst of all these weird aliens and the music really drives that point home. He doesn’t lament being taken away from his family, but he needs this music to feel like a person. And it’s all great music, by the way.
The characters are all fantastic and humorous and sympathetic in their own way. They’re all a bit batty and that’s why we love them. All five of our main characters are fabulously played, but Rocket steals the show in a lot of ways, because his attitude is just so Joe-Pesci-Livewire. If there’s a downside at all it’s that I wish Ronan the Accuser and Nebula had gotten more to do. Pace gives a great performance, and he’s pretty damn terrifying, but he doesn’t ever get to be much more than a snarling, murderous despot. Minor beef, but it’s there.
In summation, friends, Guardians of the Galaxy is first-class, Grade-A space adventure comedy. It’s easily one of my top 3 Marvel movies, and close to the top of my list of movies I’ve seen in 2014. It’s fun, it’s great, it’s got badassery galore; go see it!
Images: Disney/Marvel Studios