Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Review

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy is simply an extremely fun and entertaining sci-fi adventure film.

The film is about Peter Quill. His mother died when he was still a young boy and he was kidnapped by space marauders, taken from Earth to a far-off galaxy, growing up among them. Now, as an adult, Quill is himself an outlaw bandit. His latest score is a mysterious orb. Finding the orb, Quill quickly discovers that dangerous people are after its contents, including an assassin named Gamora. She is working for Ronan the Accuser, a powerful being who wants to rain genocide upon the peaceful Xandarians. As Gamora and Quill fight over the Orb, bounty hunters Rocket and Groot also join the mix, as they are after Quill to collect a bounty out on him. All four are captured by the Xandarian police and put in prison. There they meet Drax the Destroyer, a man who only seeks revenge for the murder of his family by Ronan. In prison, an unlikely friendship forms between the five as they plot their escape and agree that the orb must not fall into Ronan’s hands (Gamora, secretly planning on betraying him the whole time).

Marvel started its cinematic universe with a few decent superhero films (most notably Iron Man) but nothing on par with the genre’s best; however, that has all changed. Phase II has been fantastic – even the weakest film of Phase II (Thor: The Dark World) is funny, action-packed, and very entertaining. Since the sheer joyful gallivanting of The Avengers and with its writer-director Joss Whedon at their creative center, Marvel Studios has found a formula that fits their brand perfectly – and they have been able to get the right people (mostly) to work on their projects. These films are incredibly fun, but also feature strong, likable characters and some emotional depth (to varying degrees). Guardians of the Galaxy might be their best standalone adventure yet (though, I could easily also say the same thing about Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier too, which speaks to the quality of Phase II).

There are a ton of things to really like about Guardians of the Galaxy. It is in many ways a grand space adventure in the vein of Star Wars, mixing great characters with action and adventure in a visually spectacular/engrossing sci-fi setting; but, Guardians of the Galaxy has one additional key element: it is wonderfully funny and features superb witty dialog (making a comparison to Serenity maybe a more accurate one – not that Star Wars does not also have its comedy moments). The film’s sense of humor is juvenile to some extent, but also smart and poignant (it is not crude and lazy like say Transformers). Writer-director James Gunn does a fabulous job putting everything together, creating the perfect tone.

Gunn embraces the weird, allowing characters like Rocket and Groot to not only feel real but succeed as fan favorites. All five of the Guardians feel developed with stories, wants, needs, and emotions that the audience can recognize, take stock in, and care about. If nothing else, Gunn introduces five new Marvel characters for the audience to love, each with their own unique voice and persona (not simply just turning out generic caricatures of classic sci-fi troupes). All five are great, which allows the film in many ways to play like The Avengers (or the anti-Avengers) – a group of individuals who come together as a team. These characters are not heroes, however. They are not gods, super geniuses or morally incorruptible. They are outcasts – a ragtag group of misfits, which in many ways makes them more relatable. They do not set out to save the galaxy initially; they are in it for personal gain, but they discover a special courage inside themselves – a morality – and become heroes. It is a classic tale that we all know, like and want to get behind. Gunn understands this, setting up the film to take full advantage of its strongest assets.

Peter Quill is similar to Han Solo in some ways and Luke Skywalker in other ways (much like Malcolm Reynolds). He is an outlaw at heart, but there is something inside him that aspires to greatness. Rocket and Groot are also similar to Han Solo and Chewbacca (though, much more mischievous and rambunctious). Gamora, however, more resembles Black Widow than any Star Wars characters. She is an assassin who betrays her past to become a heroine. Drax is the muscle, but with a good heart and extremely loyal. In these characters there is something for everyone – classic sci-fi/western heroes, a strong female character, and characters who generate tons of great comedic material.

Conversely, though, I would say that Guardians of the Galaxy is a bit weak in terms of its villains, keeping it from being truly great (or it is one of the things that holds it back – I will get to the other main one later). Ronan the Accuser is a fairly bland genocidal maniac. He has some flair, but he is mostly uninteresting. Far more interesting is his chief assassin Nebula (have a similar background to Gamora, but choosing a different path), but it seems as though she is being saved for a later film to explore in a more meaningful way – here, she is just a badass but not much more is revealed. The same goes for Thanos; he is being saved for another film (Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or The Avengers 3). Guardians of the Galaxy is made to focus its attention on introducing the Guardians, that is its primary goal and concern, and in this regard it does its job wonderfully, but again the villains are a casualty of there being only so much screen time. There are a few good side characters, however, most notably Yondu – Quill’s sort of adoptive father figure and chief marauder.

What is maybe the film’s best asset, in addition to its main characters, is its tone and pacing. Gunn has created a film that is just plain entertaining and smile inducing. It is a pleasure to watch, blending laughs with great action to a very satisfying degree. The film is very tightly structured, always moving forward (which I think is an important attribute of successful lighter-toned blockbusters). Gunn devises all his scenes to support the tone – one of humor, adventure and sci-fi aesthetics. The weak villains do not really matter in the end because Gunn already has five other great characters and he keeps the plot moving and the film very funny and entertaining (or at least, they do not seem to matter as much, because the viewer is just having some much fun experiencing the film).

All that said, however, I think that Guardians of the Galaxy does lack emotional depth. Gunn does a fantastic job with almost every aspect of the film, but nothing really resonates on a deeper emotional level. There are big emotions and tragedy in the lives of all the Guardians, but it all feels a bit superficial because the tone is incredibly fun and energetic. Even seeing Quill’s mother die in the opening scene does not seem to have its full intended impact – probably because he seems to have completely moved on emotionally the next time we see him. The loss of his mother does not feel like a defining character trait, even though it probably should be or was intended to be. We want to see the Guardians win the day, not because we care about them on an emotional level, but because we like them and they are a lot of fun, which is again much more superficial. The great films connect with their audiences on an emotional level. The death of Luke Skywalker’s family (his aunt and uncle and earlier his father) at the hands of the Empire (and Darth Vader) has a real palpable impact both on him and the audience. There is nothing that meaningful in this film, leaving it as something that plays more as pure entertainment than as a full cinematic experience, engaging its audience on many levels. Marvel has their formula down for making fantastically entertaining films, but they still struggle with deeper emotional resonance (though, I would argue there are moments that work well in The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, engaging their audience in a more impactful manner). As fun as Guardians of the Galaxy is, it is still not quite on the same level as the uppermost films in the genre (both superhero and entertainment-oriented sci-fi). I say this having thoroughly enjoyed the film.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy may have been a seemingly huge risk for Marvel because it is a bit weirder than their past films and deals in unlikely heroes; but due to James Gunn’s clear love of and vision for the characters and world, the film is marvelously entertaining and incredibly fun. I am not sure if it is the best Marvel Studios film so far – it very well might be – but it certainly solidifies that with Phase II Marvel Studios is on top of the superhero genre right now, churning out great stories and characters that are very funny, thrilling, and adventurous. I, for one, cannot wait to see what is next (Avengers: Age of Ultron looks like it is going to be amazing).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Gunn deals in superb and dark comedy, writing and directing films like Slither and Super, but Guardians of the Galaxy is by far his best effort to date. It exemplifies his great subversive wit (but it is not nearly as dark as his past work). I am even more interested to see what he will do with Guardians of the Galaxy 2, now that the cumbersome origin story is over with (unlike with most cinema, superhero sequels are often better as they allow filmmakers to tell more complete stories with already established characters).

In the review portion of this, I completely skipped over just how great the film looks aesthetically. Cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Charles Wood (who are both working on Age of Ultron by the way) do excellent work creating a world that is gritty and realistic yet grand and full of brilliant sci-fi awesomeness (much like The Collector’s showroom). Davis lights the film to be appropriately dark and ominous in moments/places and bright and clean in others, giving the visuals a nice dichotomy, juxtaposing the villainy of Ronan against the innocence/morality of Xandar. Wood’s sets and design are rich with detail and depth. Ronan’s ship, The Collector’s showroom (again), the Xandarian prison, and especially the interior of Quill’s ship (the Milano) are fantastic. Tyler Bates provides a good score that matches the tone well, but it is the film’s soundtrack that takes center stage musically. The mix of great 1970s pop songs seems to perfectly capture the spirit of the film and its characters.

The cast is tremendous and perfectly suited to their roles and the overall tone. Peter Serafinowicz, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, and Djimon Hounsou are all great in small supporting roles. Karen Gillan is fantastic as Nebula with almost a frolicsomely evil menace (I hope there is much more of her in the future). Michael Rooker is one of the James Gunn troupe who make appearances in the film (others include Sean Gunn, Greg Henry, and Nathan Fillion). Rooker is great as space pirate Yondu, a role that is right in his wheelhouse. Lee Pace brings a lot of Shakespearian energy to Ronan, always gravely monologing; it works well. Bradley Cooper voices Rocket (who was played live for the actors during filming by Sean Gunn), the character who might just steal the film. Cooper has a manic energy – jubilantly rude and playful, yet with a heart (in there somewhere). Vin Diesel voices Groot, who may very well be the film’s best character. (Like with his voice role in The Iron Giant) Diesel does a lot with very little, displaying a vicious loyalty to his friends. Dave Bautista is good as Drax, definitely displaying the physicality, but also Bautista shows a knack for comedy too, playing a warrior who takes everything literally. Zoe Saldana does everything well in this. She certainly has the physicality to make a convincing assassin as Gamora, but she also displays a sympathetic heart, allowing the audience to believe that she would fight to save the galaxy despite her past allegiances. It is also nice to see that she is not just relegated to ‘romantic interest’. Chris Pratt was always going to make a great Han Solo type as Peter Quill. He has brilliant comedic timing and delivery, but also the confidence and swagger that typify the archetype.

Summary & score: Guardians of the Galaxy is the sci-fi saga general moviegoers have been waiting for since Star Wars’ original trilogy ended in 1983 (or for those who found Firefly/Serenity: it is the sci-fi saga fans have been waiting for since Fox cancelled Firefly). It is spectacularly fun. 8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment