Thursday, August 7, 2014

If The Avengers Were Made As A Science Fiction Comedy: Guardians Of The Galaxy!

The Good: Good humor, Decent soundtrack, Good plot development
The Bad: Rather obvious (and rushed) character development, Nothing exceptional in terms of performances, Distracting 3-D in several points
The Basics: Guardians Of The Galaxy further expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe while amusing viewers . . . without resonating the same way as the prior installments.

Guardians Of The Galaxy has a number of reasonable comparisons to the giant Marvel film The Avengers (reviewed here!), not just because both are set within the same storytelling universe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was established in Phase One (reviewed here!) as a surprisingly grounded place: Tony Stark needed time to train within his suit of armor, Steve Rogers was a unique warrior set in place as the only stopgap against an army powered by an extraterrestrial device and for the bulk of his time on Earth, Thor was without his godlike powers. For all of the supernatural and comic book conceits that exist in science fiction and comic book movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe did not employ most of them (save in the Hulk movies, which is arguably why they failed). In other words, most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe strove to generally recreate the real world and then add slight twists to it and explore how “real people” and the “real world” would react to those twists.

Until the climax of The Avengers, when an interstellar alien force invades, and outside the climactic event of Thor: The Dark World (reviewed here!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has worked hard to keep a realist sensibility to itself. Taking an entirely different tact is the new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians Of The Galaxy. Guardians Of The Galaxy, as the name implies, is set (mostly) in the farthest reaches of the galaxy (where a sizable population still looks mostly human) and explores the larger consequences of the artifacts that the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been introducing. Those artifacts, like the Tesseract and the seed in the Thor sequel, are given an explicit name in Guardians Of The Galaxy: they are Infinity Stones (which Marvel geeks knew years ago). Guardians Of The Galaxy introduces another one and reveals what their purpose is . . . along with the motivation Thanos had for hunting the Tesseract in The Avengers. More than just in its outlandish setting, Guardians Of The Galaxy transforms the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a much less grounded place. Guardians Of The Galaxy feels like exactly what it is: a film based on a comic book.

That is not to say Guardians Of The Galaxy is not good. It is. Guardians Of The Galaxy is a fun and funny science fiction comedy, continuing the tradition of the niche genre like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (reviewed here!) or Men In Black (reviewed here!). Unlike the former, Guardians Of The Galaxy lacks a sense of theme and universal resonance and treads more toward entertainment than enlightenment.

Opening in 1988, Peter Quill’s mother dies and the young boy flees into the night where he is promptly abducted by aliens. Twenty-six years later, Quill is scavenging on a dead world where he recovers an orb from the ruins. Moments after he gets the item he was sent for, he squares off against Korath and his forces. Evading them and retreating to his ship, the Milano, Quill decides to betray his employer and sell the recovered Orb on his own. While Quill heads to Xandar to sell the Orb, the villainous alien Ronan dispatches Gamora (who volunteers) to recover it. When the potential buyer for the Orb freaks out – after learning Ronan is after the artifact – Quill is attacked by Gamora, a sentient genetically-modified, cybernetically enhanced raccoon named Rocket and his humanoid plant companion Groot, and the Nova police force.

The quartet is imprisoned on a remote world, the Kyln, where virtually everyone wants to kill Gamora, especially Drax The Destroyer. Quill manages to save Gamora’s life and refocuses Drax on finding and killing Ronin. The quintet stages an incredible escape from the Kyln by working together, with the four aliens actually waiting for Quill when he goes back for his prized mix tape. Hunted by Ronan, Quill’s regular employer Yondu Udonta and the police force from Nova, Quill and his compatriots become determined to keep the Orb from falling into the hands of Ronan and Thanos when Ronan reveals that the Orb contains an Infinity Stone with virtually unlimited power to destroy. Working together, Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot must protect the citizens of Xandar from the genocidal plans of Ronan and Thanos.

In many ways, Guardians Of The Galaxy is a very typical science fiction film. In fact, its reliance upon humor makes it fun, but also as formulaic as virtually every comedy to grace the big screen . . . ever. Guardians Of The Galaxy transforms the Marvel Cinematic Universe simply by realigning the physics of the galaxy to allow virtually every comic book conceit as opposed to conforming to realistic physics. That makes the fight scenes in Guardians Of The Galaxy extraordinarily dynamic and animated, especially when Groot and Rocket are involved. They hop around without clear boundaries on their abilities (Groot, for example, is entirely inscrutable and only reveals the extent of his powers and abilities when they become relevant and necessary).

Peter Quill is a decent anti-hero; he does the right thing when it suits him, but he is a Han Solo-esque bounty hunter who also strangles small animals to use them as microphones when the mood takes him. In his quest to get respect in the galactic underground as Star Lord, Quill does not actually distinguish himself in any strong or meaningful way. Less the function of his personality or values, Quill manages to survive Guardians Of The Galaxy simply by biology. Heavily alluded to in the film’s very first scene, Peter Quill is not simply a human, but his heritage is only a minor subplot in the larger film.

Far more of a component of Guardians Of The Galaxy is establishing and then defying the premises of the universe and characters Peter Quill is a part of. In this regard, Guardians Of The Galaxy is painfully formulaic. Elements that are established in an obvious way include Groot’s limited vocabulary (he, we are told, only speaks the three words “I am Groot,” though Rocket seems able to interpret what he means by it as the film goes on), Gamora’s absolute refusal to dance, and the obviously seeded gift Quill receives from his dying mother that he has not opened over the lapsed twenty-six years. For sure, viewers need a film with character development to make any movie worth watching, but Guardians Of The Galaxy is like watching a checklist of the elements that are used to establish the characters getting checked off. Virtually everything established about a character, up to and including Drax’s lifelong struggle with metaphor, is defied by the film’s end. Guardians Of The Galaxy is obviously intended to build a franchise, but the way the film ends, there is almost nowhere to go for the characters that will not force the writers to completely redefine them. This would be analogous to Bruce Banner learning to control his ability to transform in Hulk (such an ability would have left the character with nothing compelling for The Incredible Hulk or The Avengers). So, in some ways, Guardians Of The Galaxy undoes its own attempt to build a franchise by making a solid (if formulaic) story.

In a similar fashion, Guardians Of The Galaxy is nothing extraordinary on the acting front. John C. Reilly is (mostly) goofy as the Nova Police Officer Dey and Glenn Close is appropriately authoritative as Nova Prime, the leader of Xandar. Djimon Hounsou plays the villainous Korath with virtually the same presence that he has played many other adversaries over the years. The film’s lead, Chris Pratt, plays Quill as an everyman and he does so with a similarly goofy quality (but without the slouch) to his character from Parks And Recreation. Even Zoe Saldana (who plays Gamora) is used in such a familiar way that director James Gunn doesn’t even bother hiding the allusion to her playing Uhura by throwing her in a miniskirt at the movie’s end.

Guardians Of The Galaxy is charming and worth watching, but it is hardly a great and enduring film the way some other, recent super hero films have managed to be.

For other works in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my reviews of:
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Iron Fist - Season 1
"What If . . . " - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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