'Guardians of the Galaxy'
(Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, et al / PG-13 / 123 mins)
Overview: A group of interstellar outlaws team up to save the galaxy from a villain who seeks ultimate power in this comic book space adventure from Marvel Studios and director James Gunn (Slither, Super).
Verdict: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy transports us from one young boy’s traumatic experience at a hospital to the other side of the galaxy, where that boy becomes Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) – a.k.a. Star-Lord (who?) – an orphan of Earth, raised in an alien gang of thieves led by the infamous Yondu (Michael Rooker). Quill starts out his adventure with a simple misdeed in mind: snatch Yondu’s latest bounty before the boss man can collect on it. Unfortunately, nabbing said object instantly makes Quill the target of bounty hunters like Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), as well as assassins like Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
After a few scuffles and many bruises, Quill and his pursuers land in a prison where their oddball circle is completed by the lethal Drax (Dave Bautista), a man living only for vengeance against the Kree terrorist, Ronan (Lee Pace), who is also very much in pursuit of Quill’s stolen goods. With murder, betrayal, and greed as their common ground, the five inmates strike a temporary alliance to help each other reach their respective goals; but when the entire galaxy is put in danger, each outcast learns that sometimes, thieves, murderers, thugs and madman are the exact types needed to save the day.
With James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel has rolled a decidedly different product off of their movie assembly line. It’s an odd cocktail, no doubt – but like a mixologist’s potion, it’s a pretty delicious (and effective) one in the end. And yet, while the characters and concept of this more obscure comic book property are brought to life (and sold) on the screen, the intergalactic world around them is not as fully realized, and the typical Marvel movie hangups once again weaken the overall cinematic experience. In short: Guardians of the Galaxy may blast off another successful franchise for Marvel, but it has a few parsecs left to go before it can truly claim greatness.
Let’s start with the positives: This film’s primary goal is selling audiences on the odd and obscure Guardians of the Galaxy characters, and it does that in spades. In Gunn’s indie filmmaker hands, we get a Marvel film that is deliciously off-beat and sardonically witty – which is why it’s almost like whiplash whenever it suddenly becomes gut-wrenchingly serious and emotional, as well. All of those qualities radiate from the five characters (both human and CGI) that serve as our titular team – who are themselves brought to life by five actors who help sell this oddball vision with great ensemble chemistry.
Here are the negatives: The “Marvel Cosmic” universe Guardians attempts to build feels green screen thin and sound stage hollow. This film is already drawing Star Wars comparisons, but really it’s more in line with the Star Wars prequels in terms of lack of substance to the alien environments we encounter. The enclosed sets (like the prison set piece, or inside Ronan’s warship) tend to be more convincing (as do the fully CGI sequences of spaceship battles, chases, etc); but when mixing live actors with fantastical CGI environments, the results are less than convincing, and once again we get that “TV budget” effects problem common to Marvel Movies. Establishing shots of alien worlds look more like concept artwork in motion, rather than actual, believable, landscapes.
The post-converted 3D turns out to be surprisingly worthwhile, as the film makes pretty consistent good use of the format (thanks to solid pre-planning on Gunn’s part). But while the visuals may generally be solid – at times gorgeous – the actual character of space (and all the worlds therein) is not established all that well. Guardians often feels like Galaxy Quest sci-fi adventure satire, and while that may be intentional in terms of narrative content, the fact that it sometimes feels that way in terms of visual form is evidence that Gunn and Co. still have some better world-building to do in the sequel. Still, as a first foray into blockbuster filmmaking, Guardians is a very good achievement for Gunn.