July 29, 2014
Heralding a return to silly, thrilling space travel movies, Guardians of the Galaxy, opening August 1st, is Marvel Studio’s tenth picture and the final standalone piece of what they call “Phase 2.” Directed and co-written by James Gunn (Slither, Super), Guardians of the Galaxy is a tale of losers, thieves, and killers that is so strange, so campy, so utterly stuck in the seventies that it can’t possibly fail.
This space oddity centers around Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill (scavenger/looter/thief) and a mysterious orb he tracks down on an abandoned planet. In order to stay alive long enough to find out what the orb is and why he’s being hunted for it, he forges an uneasy alliance with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively), and vengeance-seeking warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Once they uncover the truth of the orb, they must decide how far they are willing to go and what they are willing to sacrifice to save the galaxy from absolute annihilation.
Gunn is clearly a fan of cinema who utilizes aspects of classics like Indiana Jones and Star Wars to create a world of hustlers and criminals that lives and breathes. Instead of utilizing stereotypes and gimmicks, Gunn has given us full-characterized people with wants and needs. Characters who feel loneliness, live on the fringe of society, and seek redemption are classic themes in cinema that every theatergoer can understand. This heart is what makes Guardians succeed when everything about it seems so absolutely bonkers.
While I refuse to spoil the movie, Gunn and company have combined NASA-level celestial scenery with music from the seventies that will make your eyes drool and your butt bounce. The planet Xandar, where the Nova Corps have their headquarters, looks like a virtual utopia with clean streets, beautiful landscapes, and quick-to-respond crowd control machines whereas the isolated mining community of Knowhere is grungy, grimy, and full of the scum of the galaxy. Given that Marvel is owned by Disney, I half-expected to see a familiar wookiee buy Rocket a drink while the nearly-banded group waits for a mysterious emissary. Most importantly, the 3D is high quality. Unlike most of the 3D films I’ve seen, which suffer from darkening due to the lens, every image just popped off the screen and not in the typically “watch out for your face” way. This was clearly a high-level capture of images and not just a conversation from 2D. Fast movement doesn’t suffer from motion blur. Images had weight and dimension. Explosions had force. The expanse of space had the kind of depth you felt you could get lost in; and without Quill’s gear, you’d be in a lot of trouble. Luckily, when this ragtag group seems to be in trouble, Quill’s mixtape comes to the rescue.
Marvel’s movies, like most summer flicks, are heavily scored with perhaps one or two singles by a currently prominent artist or band. Not Guardians. Though it does feature a score by Tyler Bates, marking a third collaboration with Gunn, the music isn’t just used to signify the highs and lows of the story or to play in the background during exposition. The music is as much a part of the story as the mysterious orb, though more central to Quill. When we first meet Quill, he’s a young boy listening to Awesome Mix, Vol. 1. on his walkman. This mix is made up of all the songs his mother loved, so it serves as his last connection to her and to Earth. In a way, he’s still stuck, 26-years and many light years later, as the same boy who lost his mother. The songs of the seventies often have an ethereal quality, whether in tone or lyrics. They also often had grittiness in response to the free-wheeling sixties before the electronic influence of the eighties. Understanding the impact that music can have, Gunn reportedly played music during filming to assist his cast in getting in the proper mindset for whichever scene they were working on. So if you’ve seen the trailer, you know to expect “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, but by the end of the 2hr2min runtime, you’ll be a giggling mess as you hum along to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone or “O-O-H Child” by The Five Stairsteps, “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways will become your new anthem, and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell will have you reaching for the stars as you try to reach escape velocity.
Ultimately, I haven’t had so much fun at the movies in ages. On its own, Guardians is a fun romp, that should not have worked because of all the things it asks the audience to accept with little background or explanation. As a piece of a larger work, however, it absolutely soars. Coming to this adventure nine films deep in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we know what to expect and come open-minded. A living tree that only says “I Am Groot” who’s buddies with talking Raccoon? Let’s do this. Mystical orb that is somehow the key to destroying the galaxy? Of course! Because we are fully committed as an audience and the story is executed, not as farce or camp, but truth, we buy in without question. We are no longer shocked to see other creatures, nor are we stuck trying to figure out space travel, space ships, or laser guns. This is the world in which they live, and by extension, us as well. We’ve seen a self-centered genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist become a one-man terror deterrent. We’ve watched a god find humanity. We’ve see what happens when the meek aspire to serve selflessly and continue to sacrifice beyond measure. Within the MCU, we’ve found a way to connect with the ideals that made comic books great from the beginning.
If I leave you with one thing though, it’s this – don’t think that Guardians of the Galaxy is a simple story of “right place, wrong time.” To avoid spoilers, I haven’t even scratched the surface by addressing things like: the civil war on the verge of breaking out between the Kree and the Shi’ar Empire; religious zealot Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace); the Collector (Benico del Toro, last seen in the end credits of Thor: The Dark World); the Nova Corps (featuring John C. Reily as corpsman Dey and Glenn Close as leader Nova Prime); Nebula, Thanos “daughter” (played with exquisite wraith by Karen Gillan); OR addressing the true nature of the Infinity Stones, which were last mentioned in the mid-credits scene of Thor: The Dark World. More than anything, it’s exactly what the summer movie season has so desperately needed – pure, undiluted fun. So put on your headphones, press play, and head to the furthest reaches of space.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5