Monday, 4 August 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

So, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy on opening day, in a packed out cinema in the middle of the day. I've been extremely busy all weekend, during which time the film has done spectacularly well, soundly beating all its projections and altogether proving to be a huge hit. Pretty good job, especially considering this was Marvel's first risky release since, well, Iron Man. The other characters Marvel have made films from haven't always been huge names compared to Spider-Man, Batman and Superman, but since that first near-perfect Stark movie, they've been on a safe run. Sure, they've consolidated that by making extremely fine popcorn movies, refusing the temptation to rest on their laurels and churn out identikit superhero flicks. Each movie has been its own beast, and that is to the studio's credit and success. However, Guardians could have been the weak link. The source material is not well-known. I'm a bit of a Marvel buff, but I knew next to nothing about them when the film was announced, although Marvel's canny push on the Guardians comics, with reintroductory one-shots for its main characters, has been a great way in.

Part of the success of the movie has to be its relentless publicity campaign. We've been assaulted by trailers and clips over the past couple of months. However, the Guardians trailers have been more consistently entertaining than many films. There have been some missteps – there's always the foolish temptation to use your best scene as a promo clip – but it can't be denied that word of mouth has generated a lot of the opening weekend's success. When announced, I was intrigued by the Guardians film, but not especially worried. I thought this might be the first Marvel film I wouldn't bother making time to see at the cinema. Once I'd seen that first “Hooked on a Feeling” trailer, I was sold and could not wait to see it. I've been playing the soundtrack on Spotify for weeks. Still, in spite of a strong campaign, there's the sense that Marvel were prepared for this to do poorly. The unusual release date gives this away, I feel. If the film had tanked, the studio could point out that late summer releases rarely do well, and quietly put it down as a failed experiment.

However, it worked. If anything, having a lesser known group of characters is to the film's benefit. Even with the limited knowledge I've gained reading the comics lately, I can see that they've made some tweaks to the characters. Quill's background is altered to fit the style of the film more. Drax's story is hugely simplified. These aren't minor but established characters relaunched under a new title for comics diehards. These are entirely new characters for a new audience, and they need to make an immediate impression.

While there are five central characters, it's Star Lord's Story. Chris Pratt is at the centre of the film as Peter Quill, the only human character in the entire film (although the Nova Corps, on the whole, might as well be). While we discover there is more to him in the end, to begin with Quill is our sole link to Earth, thanks to the heartbreaking opening scene. Honestly, that was wrenching, astonishingly so for such a fun, over-the-top film. It works brilliantly though, making Quill's journey understandable. While the situation is outlandish – abducted by space pirates at the age of ten – it's not far off from any story about a good kid who fell in with the wrong crowd. We can see that Quill's grown up in the wrong direction. Young Peter has been in a fight because he stood up for a frog being killed for fun. Star Lord goes into a heist kicking womprats around. We can see he's turned a little bad.

However, Chris Pratt makes the gun-toting, lizard-kicking, womanising rogue incredibly loveable. It's wonderful that this guy, who shed pounds for the role, won out over other, more recognisable faces. Pratt is becoming a big star now – he's filming Jurassic World now – and here you can see why. He's gorgeous and impossible not to like. What's brave of this film is that, in spite of his origins on Earth and his constant companion of his “Awesome Mix 1” soundtrack, Quill is not much of an identification character. While we can recognise his character type, and he's a human being, he's almost as alien as the other major characters. He hops from planet to planet in his souped-up spaceship, jets around with a rocket pack and beds purple-skinned space babes. He's lived in this universe for twenty-six years. He's not a viewpoint character anymore, and that's a risky move. Undeniably, however, it works., due to some deft scriptwork and Pratt's charm.

The remaining members of the Guardians are all successful. After the Avengers have cohered as a very heroic team, it's refreshing to have a bunch of scoundrels and misfits heading a movie like this. As Quill says, they're all losers – the lost and outcast. Five remarkable but damaged people, thrown together but linked through shared misfortune despite their disparate backgrounds. The one weak link is, sadly, Gamora. While Zoey Saldana is excellent as the sexy green space vixen, turning against her twisted family of Thanos and Nebula, the script does not give her the chance to fully convince. Gamora is supposed to be the most dangerous woman in the galaxy, yet she needs rescuing by the male characters again and again. The only time she comes into her own is in the fight against her sister, and while that is a powerful and exhilarating battle, it's clear that these two are a step below the male protagonists in the hierarchy of the film.

Dave Bautista gets some stick as another wrestler-cum-actor, but he's actually very good as the painfully literal Drax the Destroyer. What could be a run-of-the-mill muscle character is lifted by Bautista's performance into someone strangely innocent and eloquent, while absurdly dangerous. Much of the film, however, belongs to the two CGI members of the team. Much has been made of the ballsy chance taken with Rocket and Groot. However, this is the true joy of the film – that a maniacal talking raccoon and a walking tree that barely qualifies as a speaking role not only feel perfectly reasonable parts of this insane environment, but that they steal every scene they're in. I'm not a big fan of Bradley Cooper, but he gives a perfect performance as Rocket Raccoon, angry and sarcastic but still vulnerable. As for Groot... well, I challenge anyone not to adore Groot. A real triumph of character design, Groot is a huge, deadly yet innocent creature. Vin Diesel manages to imbue those three words with astonishing emotion – it's definitely his best performance since The Iron Giant. Groot is easily my favourite character in the movie, but a special shout-out is warranted for Michael Rooker as Yondu. He basically plays his usual grim-faced self, but blue, and with a hoard of pirates to back him up. Yet he sells the twisted father-son vibe between Yondu and Quill. Also impressive is John C. Reilly as Nova Corps officer and family man Rhomann Dey, the real everyman of the movie.

It's not perfect. Glenn Close, Peter Serafinowicz and Djimon Hounsou are largely wasted. Thanos is merely a background presence in the film, which is fine but unexpected. Still, his brief appearance adds something to the larger universe being constructed here. Sadly, his comicbook authentic look is one of the few visual elements in the film that don't work. He looks like the huge, hench cartoon that he is. The villain role is carried primarily by Lee Pace as Ronan as the Accuser, who does sterling work with what is a very limited part. Much like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, Ronan is a generic supervillain who would be paper-thin were it not for the work of a decent actor under the make-up. Far more effective is Taneleer Tivan, the Collector, who also has a surprisingly small role in the film. Benicio del Toro gives an absurd and camp performance that is perfectly at home in this bizarre world, but his character strikes me as a more unnerving creation than either Ronan or Thanos. The others are simple-minded “destroy the universe” types. Tivan wants to own the universe, and his petty, unwarranted cruelty marks him out as a far more unsettling character.

Altogether though, this is fantastic, silly, exciting film. It's just fun, through and through, and god we can do with some of that in this era of dark and gritty films. The more serious moments don't feel out of place, and serve to make the silliness and fun worth more. The visuals are truly spectacular – getting Chris Foss in to design the spacecraft was inspired – and the soundtrack, made of seventies classics, is a welcome change from the usual orchestral scores. Even “Cherry Bomb” works in context, and that's a shit song. Also, Cosmo the Space Dog is in it. I bet Warner Bros. Won't have the balls to put Krypto in the Justice League film. Really though, this is, for all its shallow, MacGuffin-hunting plot, is pure science fantasy fun at its best. Star Wars is going to have to be bloody amazing to stand up to this.

Spoilers after the break.

Easter Eggs and Future Echoes 

We learn a lot more about the Infinity Stones here. At the close of business, one is under the protection of the Nova Corps, another, the Tesseract, is being kept in Asgard, and a third, the Aether, is seemingly still in the possession of the Collector, although after the devastation of his collection, we can't be sure. The remaining three are unaccounted for, although one might be the mind-controlling stone in Loki's staff, which is now in Hydra's possession. The Infinity Gauntlet, required to wield them, is in Odin's collection.

The spectacular mining colony Knowhere is the detached head of a Celestial, cosmic beings which are also seen in flashback wielding the Stones. This opens up the exciting possibility of an adaptation of the celebrated Eternals title someday.

The modern iteration of the Guardians includes two further members, Nova and Adam Warlock. It has been suggested that Warlock will be introduced in the sequel, while the prominent role of the Nova Corps in this film gives an easy way for Nova to be included in future.

We learn at the end of the film that Quill is half-human, half-something-else, and that Yondu was hired by his father to pick him up, only decided not to deliver him to that "jackass." In the comics, Quill is the illegitimate son of J'Son, the King of Spartax. They do not get on.

In the comics, Ronan is accompanied by the Badoon, the enemies of the original Guardians. The only member of the original Guardians included in this film is Yondu, comprehensively reimagined as a Ravager rather than a mystic warrior. The Badoon rights are tied up with Fox, and so Ronan's troops are Sakaarans. While they are faceless alien mercenaries here and could have been anyone, the Sakaarans are integral to the “Planet Hulk” storyline.

As well as Cosmo the Space Dog, a prominent character in the comics, Howard the Duck makes a surprise appearance after the end credits, voiced by Seth Green. I do not expect we shall see him again, but who knows?

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