With all the box office coin they’ve earned from their massively successful adaptations of their superhero comic book characters, Marvel Studios can certainly take a gamble if they wanted to. And they have in bringing one of their lesser known properties, even in comic circles, to the big screen with Guardians Of The Galaxy; ditching those Avengers jerks, Marvel have taken to the stars and invite you a whistle stop tour of the space side of their universe in one of the biggest and best films of 2014.
Abducted from Earth the same day his mother dies in 1988, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie) grows up to be a womanising, galaxy-faring, rogue-with-a-heart, with delusions of grandeur, dubbing himself Star-Lord. Whilst on the trail of a mythical sphere to claim a big credit bounty, he runs foul of revenge bent space tyrant, Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace, The Hobbit). Through trials and tribulations, Star-Lord butts heads with redemption seeking assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Into Darkness), vengeance hungry literal Drax (Dave ‘Batista’ Bautista, Riddick), mutated experiment turned gun wielding bounty hunter racoon Rocket (with the voice of Bradley Cooper, American Hustle) and limited dialogue walking tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, also Riddick). The five clash before turning their focus to stopping Ronan before he wrecks the entire universe.
This is the closest we’ll probably get to seeing The A-Team having an adventure in space. Sure all five members of the Guardians are broken in their own way and would screw each other over for a space credit when they first meet, but given how they’re catalysed together, they decide to do the right thing and save the whole universe. The best aspect of the entire film is how each member has their own fault and it’s the other’s interactions with them in their coming together which starts to fix them. Despite not being a traditional superhero film, Guardians gets into the psychology behind it with there being a set of characters introduced and they have to work out for themselves if they can be heroes and if they can do that together, despite their individual faults. Done really well, this remit is really engaging and not something you really expect from a summer blockbuster comic book movie..
In perhaps the ultimate Hollywood tale of ‘rags to riches’ in filmmaking, director James Gunn (Slither) started off working on ultra low budget Troma horror and sci-fi pictures in his career before ending up making one of slickest looking movies of this year. Considering it’s a space movie with a massive variance of locales, everywhere looks suitably epic and alive. The prison our heroes are sent to looks brilliantly rusty and industrial yet lived in. The Nova Corps, the disappointingly unfilled-out space police of choice, have their own home planet and it looks suitably futuristic without encroaching on other sci-fi places you can think of. Heck, we go to a mining colony that is made out of the head of a former celestial being. When you see that colourful, almost dissolving, on screen image you are left watching in complete awe. Some of the action scenes are done so masterfully, you wouldn’t know Gunn hasn’t done anything on this scale before. That Nova Corps vs. Ronan’s starship (which looks like a black monolith rubix cube meets a Bop-It) shield battle in terms of scale is ridiculously impressive and worth the price of admission alone.
Cast performance wise, it’s a good effort all round. Pratt does his best Han Solo meets Marty McFly impression in a decent leading man, comedy outing who constantly comes across as the fish out of water without realising it (delivering Earth sayings then having to explain them). Saldana is pretty fine too although her turning on her boss at the start was rather rushed. Despite it being the first time she manages to get away and proclaim the start of her redemption there’s no real conflict from other characters, though Saldana does look awesome enough in fight sequences to make up for that. Pace looks quite menacing, makes the most of being a space despot, and swings a hammer round well, but for reasons we’ll talk about later this is not a film where a villain is needed for the hero focus to work (for once in a Marvel movie) and it’s another letdown from the House Of Idea’s staple villains. Voice-work wise, Cooper brings a galaxy of enthusiasm and emotion to Rocket which helps him as the kiddie’s most loved mascot character, and despite having only three words to say the entire movie (The words “I”, “Am” and “Groot”), Diesel manages to convey a fair field of emotions whilst conveying the pure innocence and flawless character Groot has.
For me though, the take-away breakout star was former WWE wrestler Bautista. Whilst not having the natural charisma of a certain bigger wrestler-turned-action star, he is magnificent at stressing the deadpan humour of Drax in some of the script’s best lines. It highlights his characteristics, and he’s not too in your face (unlike the kid friendlier characters), with the way he takes everything literally being a real winner within Bautista’s acting ability. The “Nothing goes over my head – my reflexes are too fast” moment is perfectly delivered, in a movie already filled with plenty of fantastic dialogue and laugh out loud lines. Away from the Guardians themselves, there’s tonnes of fan-servicing casting from various aspects of sci-fi and other comic book TV and film. Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan turns up as a more android than flesh alien and is nearly unrecognisable, unlike Michael Rooker of The Walking Dead fame being a spray painted blue version of Merle as entertaining as he always is. Glenn Close is that traditional cast choice in a Marvel film to add acting authenticity to proceedings, whilst Wreck-It Ralph himself John C. Reilly has an extended cameo in a fairly weighty role. Cult cinema lovers will have a keen eye out for cast & crew that have worked with Gunn before and won’t be disappointed.
You can see how something like Guardians is a monster hit; it aims for every possible demographic with something for everyone; the comic book fan will see this regardless of curiosity, because it’s something they have emotional investment in, and the science fiction crowd are always keen for a new space adventure. You have Rocket & Groot for comic relief and children’s cute characters appeal, Gamora as the sexy alien lady, Drax has the hard-man with an ex-wrestler portraying him, and Quill has those lovable rogue attributes to get you on side. Throw in the killer soundtrack with catchy, memorable, pre-80’s classics (all played from Star-Lord’s walkman, still with the same music from the day he left Earth) and plenty of nostalgic toys lined up on spaceship dashboards and you’re instantly made welcome despite being billions of light years away from Earth, or the nearest human for that matter. We even get Kevin Bacon movies being explained to those uncultured alien jerks from deep space as part of Quill’s fabulously dated pop culture references. There is something for everyone to pick up on in various homages and mentions. The humour is spread out too. Not only do we get utterly filthy adult references to Star-Lord’s spaceship being like a Jackson Pollock but we get something as cute as a break-dancing Groot so that everyone from young to old is laughing their butt off.
So is it an all-round winner? Not quite. It’s a Marvel movie which means yet again they fail to big up their villain for yet another film. I’m not saying Ronan should be the focus, and Pace is more than ample for the role, but he’s just an excuse for the Guardians to come together as a crux to the plot without standing out as his own character. Same thing happened with the bad guy in Thor 2 (whose name I’m actually struggling to remember as I type this). Whilst not as forgettable, Ronan is perilously close to it, despite having an interesting design and his own idiosyncrasies. His plan could do with some work, and seems really lame (he has to land to fire his weapon? seriously?). For a film series, Marvel have only nailed one villain right and managed to keep him in the public’s psyche – Loki. Out of TEN films, that is poor. It would have been nice to have seen some other aliens that didn’t look humanoid; not doing highlights Rocket & Groot and makes them more special, but at the same time it wouldn’t have hurt to have a different looking creature entirely. Without sounding too picky, they really could have explained how some characters were able to survive in the vacuum of outer space a lot longer than others, and how the hell have Star-Lord’s walkman’s batteries survived this long? Despite getting a big introduction in one of the post-credits scenes in Thor 2, Benicio del Toro’s Collector character feels like he was wasted and served for exposition instead of the promise of Space Liberace. Finally, whilst sensibly offering something different in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and steering clear of Avengers 2, there’s the horrible feeling half the big events in this are set up for Avengers 3 down the road.
Overall, the most impressive thing about Guardians Of The Galaxy is the fact that it even exists; as we’re not even talking about one of Marvel’s A-list properties, yet Gunn manages to craft them into possibly the break-out cinema stars in years, despite there being some noticeable flaws (if you look past the wonderfully hypnotising allure it radiates). It’s not quite an Avengers beater but then this film never set out to do that; instead, through nostalgia, and filled-out characters designed to instantly entertain with Moon-sized appealing motivations, the space adventure genre of sci-fi has made a welcome return already before a certain franchise was meant to. Star Wars beware – this galaxy has a new group of sheriffs in town.