July 31, 2014

Review: Marvel Goes Galactic – 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

"If I had a black light, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting."
Guardians of the Galaxy

Based on a comic book series no one's ever heard of, Marvel Studios' foray into intergalactic storytelling is a mostly enjoyable, successful standalone entry in their cinematic universe. Co-writer/director James Gunn and his fingerprints are all over Guardians of the Galaxy as he builds a quirky hero's journey in the mould and tradition of Star Wars. It's an interesting blend of classic science fiction tropes with pop culture fantasy iconography told within the Marvel factory.

Gunn's best efforts are chiefly in the casting where the dynamic Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord), a somewhat joyless Zoe Saldaña (Gamora), the deadpan, brute wrestler Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer) with the voices of Bradley Cooper (Rocket Racoon) and Vin Diesel (Groot) play our merry band of misfits. Cooper's voice work in particular is a standout as his Rocket takes a bulk of the screen time playing on the absurdity of following a talking racoon executing many acts of violence. Along with Rocket, Groot makes for a fairly compelling, sentient tree being who never says anything aside from "I am Groot." These CGI characters are well fleshed out with thrilling artistry and sophisticated execution.

With so much strange, out there storytelling, Nicole Perlman and Gunn's densely packed script often delves into extended bits of exposition dumps where characters recount or explain in detail plot points instead being shown or organically told of them. Particularly in the first act where characters quickly come together and their backstories overlap, it gets a bit much. These parts drag the film where there's mostly a brisk pace set off by a recycled MacGuffin in the vein of other Marvel films (swap out the Tesseract for another infinity stone here). It's the same Marvel type hero's journey exploring the motivations and background of our protagonist, his compadres, all while building a franchise. Gunn elevates his own material greatly and overcomes its clunky plot through careful execution and choreography as he enhances every element with his trademark brand of weirdness.

Chris Pratt Guardians of the Galaxy

The film does feel overstuffed in moments with countless characters and villains like Lee Pace as the sinister Roman the Accuser, a very blue Michael Rooker, the frighteningly robotic Karen Gillan, Josh Brolin as Thanos, and Benicio del Toro's bizzarre extended cameo as The Collector (think Liberace in space). Fortunately, not much time is wasted on needless character motivations, as instead, we see them act and reveal themselves through action and consequence with the fate of the universe at hand and set to a killer 1960-70s soundtrack of classic radio hits.

The bread and butter of the film really is the detail of the world building with vast interstellar landscapes, space ships, alien cities, planets, and fully formed worlds where our heroes land and blow sh*t up to much delight. Scenes and sequences pop off the screen as anything goes. We buy into the Star Trek alien vibes superbly. Guardians is fraught with storytelling flaws and clichés where a cosmic reality conforms to our grounded limitations with the usual plot beats yet its sense of fun and momentum glide us through underdeveloped characters, predictably over the top evil villains, and a convoluted conflict.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun, self-aware sendup of the sci-fi genre. Casting Pratt, full of swagger, as our Han Solo figure and hero plays off his boyish charm, humour, and physically well. His earnestness along with two green sidekicks, a tree, and raccoon strangely ground the crazy, messy space action around them as they make sure never to take things too seriously. Gunn uses his resources to assemble a purely imaginative cinematic experience free of the usual Marvel baggage while aping elements of its shared universe. It's a delightfully weird time at the movies.

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