Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Director: James Gunn
Runtime: 121 minutes

Though there's not a pirate to be found in Guardians of the Galaxy (at least not of the Blackbeard variety), the word that kept popping up in my head during the credits was "swashbuckling." Without question the Marvel universe's cheekiest adventure to date, James Gunn's breezy adventure may go through the motions of plot, but it's rather winning when it comes to character dynamics. At once acknowledging its own silliness and genuinely caring about its rag-tag group of heroes, this comedic foray into space opera territory errs on the lighter side, for better and for worse (but mostly for better).

The film's whole feel is best summed up by the film's main character Peter Quill, as played by Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt. He's slick, he looks the part, and he's got the whole roguishly handsome vibe going on, yet with just the right look in his eyes to let you know that things are never going to fall into outright despair. The film kicks off with young Quill's mother dying of cancer, yet barely a minute later he's abducted by a group of space rogues who train him to be an intergalactic thief. 

And it's on one seemingly routine, Indiana Jones-like mission that Quill's life takes its pivotal turn and gets the story proper going. After stealing a mysterious metal orb from an abandoned planet (and rocking out to the mix tape on his cassette tape player), Quill finds himself targeted by multiple forces. Among them are the fierce warrior/assassin Gamora (a bright green Zoe Saldana), who wants the orb for her boss, and two bounty hunters looking to collect the sizable claim on Quill's head. Those assassins are Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and they happen to be an anthropomorphic raccoon and tree, respectively. 

Of course, one thing leads to another, and everyone gets locked up in a floating space prison (as you do), falls in with fearsome warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and begrudgingly decides to work together. Turns out that orb is an ancient weapon, and Gamora's now former boss Ronan (Lee Pace) wants to use it to commit genocide. What happens next? Well, nothing terribly surprising, although that hardly ends up being a bad thing in this case.

Regarding plot and character, director Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman make no bones about the fact that they're creating a film designed to launch a franchise. So even though the "get the MacGuffin back from the villain" story largely goes through the motions, the pair compensate by placing focus on the mostly lighthearted bickering and bantering among the central quintet. This turns out to be a winning formula, as it's when the film is usually at its most purely enjoyable. Much of this also has to do with the nature of the characters. Rather than the usual Marvel demi gods and super humans, the Guardians are, for lack of better term, more down to Earth that your average heroes. They have their skills, but not to the point of being too different from the rest of their wild, dangerous universe. 

The main cast all have a great deal of fun with their light-as-a-feather material, and Gunn even finds ways to work in some genuinely emotional moments without going into the thornier emotional complexities. Pratt makes for an endearing leader of this band of outlaws, and proves to be a surprisingly capable leading man in both comedy and sci-fi/adventure. Saldana, now launching her third major sci-fi franchise (after Avatar and Star Trek) is as fierce as ever, and makes Gamora a suitably level-headed character without turning her into a spoil sport or a nag. And Bautista, though initially a little shaky, nicely grows into his role as the vengeful and literally-minded Drax.

The real heart of the movie, however, belongs to its two entirely digital characters. Cooper does an exceptional job voicing the wily Rocket, and helps punctuate the close encounters with po-faced dramatics with perfectly calibrated doses of sarcasm and humor. Diesel as Groot has less to work with (the character's only means of communication is to say "I am Groot"), yet he turns these repeated declarations into appropriately varied expressions of the character's emotions (and thankfully, Rocket, the Han Solo to his Chewbacca, is always on hand to translate). Both characters are also superbly rendered by the visual effects artists, which only lends extra heft to impeccable voice work from both actors.

Despite some hints at deeper trauma or sadness in these characters, the overall approach is to keep everything buoyant and in forward motion. Even with its cardboard cutout of a plot, Gunn keeps it all moving, and the film ends up feeling about 10 or 15 minutes shorter than its actual length (2 hours). So much happens, yet Guardians hardly feels like it's going along too quickly for its own good.

Gunn and his behind the scenes team have also knocked it out of the park on the visual front. Guardians hops all over the galaxy, and the art design of the all the locales feels distinct and lived-in. And, like the recent X-Men film, the overall color palette is both more vibrant and more sophisticated than almost all of the other Marvel-based films in the last decade. Guardians of the Galaxy clearly succeeds when it comes to tone, but it's also worth noting the truly sincere level of care that went into the art direction, costume design, make-up, and visual effects. Tyler Bates' grand, soaring score is a bonus on top of the slick technical accomplishments on display.

All of the above, including the winks at the audience, is more than enough to offset the well-handled, yet wholly recycled plot. Guardians does work as a self-contained adventure, but it's also designed to spawn sequels. Unlike The Amazing Spider-Man (or TASM 2), Guardians knows how to make its "origin story" click. The plot is there to make sure that things don't get stagnant, yet it's left to the characters coming together as a bizarre team and family that really matters. It's utterly frivolous entertainment, despite the hints at deeper, dark emotions, yet it also sets up a thoroughly engaging world that offers a quite literal universe to explore. This quality is what elevates Guardians of the Galaxy above other fun-but-disposable fare. It may not sink its hooks into you, but it ultimately proves to be infectious on multiple levels, and makes the wait for the next adventure (2017) feel far too long.

Grade: B/B-

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