Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by: James Gunn.
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Lee Pace (Ronan), Michael Rooker (Yondu Udonta), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), John C. Reilly (Corpsman Dey), Glenn Close (Nova Prime), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector), Laura Haddock (Meredith Quill), Sean Gunn (Kraglin / On Set Rocket), Peter Serafinowicz (Denarian Saal), Christopher Fairbank (The Broker), Josh Brolin (Thanos).

For the most part, I appreciate the “new blockbuster” that takes itself seriously – films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy that use blockbuster filmmaking to address some real issues in the world. Some of the best blockbusters of this year – from Captain America: The Winter Soldier to Godzilla to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – follow in that way as well – blockbuster filmmaking, with a serious intent as well. However, sometimes this way of filmmaking becomes heavy handed, and sucks some of the joy out of large scale filmmaking – so much so, that I do want to see some old school, nothing but fun blockbuster filmmaking. Last week’s Hercules wasn’t a good movie in any real way, but it was fun in a stupid way, and never took itself too seriously. This week, brings Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a very good movie – and is nothing but large scale fun. There is no real serious intent behind the film – it just wants to be a straight ahead space opera, with fight sequences, quick witted heroes, and a battle of good vs. evil on simple terms. It succeeds in that goal wonderfully. Guardians of the Galaxy is just pure fun.

The film opens on earth in 1988 – when Peter Quill watches his mother die of cancer. He runs outside to get away from all that death, and is beamed into a spaceship. Flash forward 26 years, and Quill (now played by Chris Pratt) is a galactic thief who has dubbed himself Starlord. His latest theft is of some sort of stone that he keeps in an orb. But he soon realizes that there are many others who want it – his old boss, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) who Quill betrayed to get it, a Kree named Ronan (Lee Pace) who wants to destroy his arch nemesis and has agreed to retrieve the stone for Thanos (Josh Brolin) in exchange for that. Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin, to get the stone back from Quill. Two bounty hunters – a super intelligent raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a walking, talking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only say the words I am Groot, decide they want Quill for the bounty on his head. And then there`s Drax (David Bautista), who wants vengeance on Ronan for killing his wife and daughter – and will help anyone who also stands in Ronan`s way. Through a series of events too convoluted to recap, Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and Drax team up and try to save the galaxy – even though there are all basically selfish criminals.

But even though Guardians of a Galaxy has at is, in many ways, a similar plot to the rest of the Marvel movies - a power mad crazy villain, who isn't all that interesting on his own, wants to destroy a planet, and the good guys have to stop him, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't seem all that interested in that plot. Likewise, while the action sequences are well done, co-writer and director James Gunn seems more interested in the smaller, character driven moments than the larger ones. Part of this is because Gunn is undeniably one of the most idiosyncratic directors Marvel has ever hired to make one of their movies. While the film is part of the larger canvas that is the Marvel universe, for this movie at least, Marvel seems to have allowed Gunn to do his own thing. Because the movie is not set on Earth, but a variety of other planets, this allows Gunn's visual imagination to run wild - and the different worlds he creates are visual wonders. As well, Gunn is at his best when he's poking fun at the clichés that make up a movie like this, rather than fulfilling those clichés - which he also does. The film does contain one of those scenes where one-by-one the team walks in slow motion towards the camera that have become standard - but Gunn twists it a little, pointing out how silly a scene like this is in the first place. The film gives you all the action you could want in a movie of this size - including a large scale space ship battle to climax - but even only a day after I saw the movie, that has started to fade from my memory. What I will remember is the more character driven moments - as the characters come together into an unlikely team. Or much mileage Vin Diesel's vocal performance gets out of saying three words over and over again, and yet never the same way, so that Groot actually becomes a fairly complex, lovable character. Or Quill's obsession with the things from his childhood, that gives him an offbeat charm.

One of the problems I have had with the large universe Marvel is creating is that there doesn't seem to be much room for deviating for the large canvas - where sometimes whole movies feel like nothing else except for a trailer for the next movie. Nothing ever really pays off completely, because they are always setting something else up. Guardians of the Galaxy isn't the best of the Marvel movies - I still think that original Iron Man or this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier take that title - but it's one of the only ones that seems like it wants to be its own thing first and foremost, and not just another cog in a larger machine. Even the after credits cookie - which Marvel usually includes simply to set up the next movie - is a throwaway gag more than anything else. It has no larger meaning, it isn’t just another corporate product (although it’s still that as well) - but a movie in its own right. I have no idea where Marvel is heading next – or what is next for the Guardians of the Galaxy, who as rumor has it they are already planning on a future team-up with The Avengers. But for this one movie anyway, they are just pure fun - something that is allowed to be itself before it becomes something bigger - but not necessarily better.

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