by Philip Price
In the late summer of 2006 a friend and I went unsuspecting into our local dollar theater to see a few movies we'd missed earlier that year. One we had no idea of what we were getting into, but were interested in due to the fact it featured Elizabeth Banks in a starring role was “Slither.” It was one of those experiences you walk away from as a nineteen year-old kid and wonder what the hell you just watched. At that age everything needs to fit squarely into a category, it has to have some semblance of order for you to think it is acceptable in the adult world and this was an R-rated horror film so that was what we expected, or at least that is what had been advertised. What “Slither” actually turned out to be was a literal gross-out comedy that played on the several homages it contained to horror films of days past and was more in the vein of “Evil Dead” than anything else. I say all of this not only to reference my introduction to the work of director James Gunn, but more to put into context the kind of non-expectations I'd set for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I didn't want to know what to expect, I didn't want to understand the universe and I certainly didn't want to have any preconceptions about who these characters were given their ridiculous appearance. I'd walked into Gunn's strikingly strange Slither with zero expectation and walked out fully appreciating it for its wackiness and ability to transcend genres while clearly doing whatever it wanted. I hoped for the same thing from ‘Guardians’ despite the fact Gunn had submitted himself to the powers that be at Marvel. I don't look at Marvel as this monster who assumes creative control and only hires directors willing to do their bidding because it is clear they have a plan for where they want all of this to go and they are looking for those willing to work with them on that ultimate goal, which anyone should be able to appreciate. What I do worry about with each Marvel film is the lack of any original voice coming through in conveying these necessary stories. The stories can be cohesive without the tone or style being the same and while the earth-bound Avengers began to feel more serialized in phase two, ‘Guardians’ is able to break that mold not only by taking place in the cosmos but by brimming with creativity in every scene of its execution.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” doesn't spend much time on earth, but it does open here on a young Peter Quill in 1988 as he watches his mother (Laura Haddock) slowly slipping away from cancer. In a moment of extreme emotional stress the young boy runs outside and into a foggy open field just outside the hospital where a large space craft appears above him and sucks him up through a portal of light and vanishes into what we assume are the deepest reaches of space. Cut to 26 years later and we are indeed on a ruined planet in deep space where an adult Quill (Chris Pratt) is searching for an orb that seems to be highly sought after. Just as he is set to retrieve the object he is ambushed by Korath (Djimon Honsou) and his small army who attempt to steal the orb from him. We are tossed into these worlds without any real knowledge of what is going on or what the motives are of these characters or what side of the line they fall on, but we are intrigued regardless because of the tone Gunn spreads over the proceedings. As Quill (who likes to call himself Star-Lord) journeys through the remains of the structure that holds this coveted orb he dances to Redbone's 1974 hit "Come and Get Your Love" while using an alien reptilian creature as his microphone. If this doesn't set a playful tone I don't know what would plus Gunn chooses this mood and setting to display his title card, so the implied style and tone is enhanced all the more.
After escaping from Korath Quill heads to the planet Xandar where he plans to sell the orb for a nice price, but somewhere else in the galaxy Korath's leader, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), has a different idea. Ronan is pissed about some peace treaty being signed between his people and the sector that contains Xandar and so he intends to destroy the planet while retrieving the orb for his boss, Thanos (the guy from the end of The Avengers who we've been hearing so much about, but finally catch a glimpse of here as voiced by Josh Brolin). In an attempt to get the orb Ronan initially wants to send Thanos' daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) to retrieve it, but Thanos' foster daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) insists she take the mission. Getting the orb back means hunting down Peter Quill and so Gamora heads to Xandar while two bounty hunters, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) the brains and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) the muscle, want to capture Quill for their own purposes after a price is put on his head by Youndu (Michael Rooker) the alien who originally took Quill from earth and wanted the orb for himself. Quill was supposed to return it to Yondu after he retrieved it, but he may be trying to get the full profits from it for himself. The convergence of Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot in the same area on Xandar is cause for quite a riot that lands them under arrest by the Nova Corps operation (headed by Glenn Close as Nova Prime and featuring John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz as cronies) and places them in prison where they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Without telling anymore of the story let it simply be known it is one of the few aspects that pulls the quality of the film down. Becoming slightly convoluted in the middle with an unnecessary trip to Knowhere that involves The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) that feels more a device to speed along the unavoidable events we know are coming and to include details and locations for later installments.
We can look at the story hiccups as only slight distractions though for the truly shining moments in “Guardians of the Galaxy” are those that are devoted to helping audiences get to know this rag-tag team. As the leader and main protagonist of the story Chris Pratt carries the film with ease. It is a role and a film that will catapult him to mainstream fame (with his voice in “The LEGO Movie” only becoming more recognizable and “Jurassic World” next year only adding to his mass appeal). As Peter Quill aka Star-Lord Pratt takes the fearless leader role and smacks it with a sense of humble narcissism. He isn't anywhere near the level of Tony Stark, but more someone who thinks highly of himself in his own mind yet is somewhat timid to make great claims to those around him lest he actually end up failing or not being as good as he thought he was. That Pratt's delivery and persona make us believe him screwing up is an actual possibility makes the overall effect of the film more interesting and ups the stakes. Gamora is widely considered a deadly assassin, but her allegiance to Thanos is what she seems to first be known for despite that title being inaccurate. As the deadliest woman in the galaxy Saldana comes away with the kind of intimidation factor needed to earn such a title. As we've seen in her roles in “Star Trek,” “Avatar” and even “Colombiana” she has the confidence and swagger to become a substantial force, but with so many other characters floating around here and with no particular characteristics Gamora is the one who suffers from not standing out as much. As expected, Groot and Rocket steal much of the show as Groot is purely a lovable presence who has the ability to do some serious damage while Rocket is a smart ass genius in many respects who Gunn's brother Sean (who also plays one of Yondu's cronies) portrayed on set and Cooper lathers with charisma in his voice work. In all honesty, Diesel couldn't do much as he only says three words with different inflections each time, but he will clearly get more credit as Groot will truly be the breakout character of the piece. As for Bautista, in his first major big screen appearance he is better than I expected and is boasted by a certain characteristic that inherently gets him more laughs by being able to play it straight.
It is the chemistry between the team and the naturalistic way in which they are brought together that shines through the difficult loops the story sometimes has to jump through. With a team-type film it is always difficult to make sure each member gets their due and at a strict two hours ‘Guardians’ is sure not to wear out its welcome, but is somehow able to give the core team their time to shine. In fact it was almost oddly fascinating how late Bautista's Drax was brought into the fold and yet was still able to make as much of an impression as he does. His initial contributions are purely selfish in that he wants revenge for the death of his wife and daughter whom Ronan murdered, but even the arc in which he comes to think of his new found comrades as true friends is well conveyed in the way he, along with Quill and Rocket, handle each situation they come to face where they don't always agree. This is true with each of our main characters though in that they are all in it for personal gain to begin with, causing internal fights and different points of view that divide and at the same time sustain the partnership through to the end. They are each honest with one another in a way where we understand each of their individual goals and they are completely open about them making the rapport and the attraction between the members mutual while consistently entertaining. The caveats of relationships formed between Groot and Drax or Quill and Rocket, the romantic angle between Quill and Gamora, the hesitance to understanding between Drax and Gamora and of course the already established brotherhood between Groot and Rocket are all elements that heighten the chemistry and bring us into a group we enjoy being a part of.
Beyond the relationships and in fact what helps compliment this ridiculous group of rag-tag thieves, assassins and bounty hunters more than anything in the film is the titular galaxy that more or less grounds them in believability. I realize that may sound a little "out-there" considering the host of names I've already mentioned that sound extremely dorky whether they be for characters or planets, but it is true because these worlds feel authentic in the setting they are given and so we buy into the fantastical components of it all. It is the little things, the things we might typically take for granted in a film like this that really stand out such as the character design, the difference in each of the worlds and more impressively the technology that rises above typical laser guns and lightsabers. While I understand these characters and worlds were taken from the comic and the costume and set designers weren't exactly being innovative here, they simply look fantastic on screen and that doesn't seem an easy task to always pull off. As Ronan, Lee Pace may come off as a Loki redux, but his appearance is inherently ugly (in a good way) and extremely intimidating. Gamora and Nebula both come off as credible alien beings rather than humans under heavy make-up and Del Toro (who really is criminally underused) is surrounded by a world all his own that feels enormous and which we only get a peek of. Even the technology in terms of the design of the Nova Corps ships and how they operate and function together to form a barrier between Ronan's ship and Xandar is aesthetically pleasing on a level we haven't seen recently while the execution of Yondu's favorite weapon is harnessed in exceptionally creative avenues that not only feel original, but truly threatening.
Of the few downfalls in the film is also the fact Gunn isn't necessarily an action director and in the scenes where there is hand to hand combat this shows in some major ways. Bautista is obviously a seasoned pro in fighting with his fists, but his talents here are undermined by the shaky-cam used to capture a fair amount of these fighting scenes while the mid-air battles among the clouds and stars are beauties to behold (especially on IMAX 3D). What gives Gunn a pass on these hand to hand combat action sequences are the fact there aren't many of them which in turn is refreshing due to the genre the film falls into. In a film that is so much fun though these complaints feel minor. ‘Guardians’ is surprisingly earnest when hitting the required beats of the story without ever feeling like it is flippant about the content and that is refreshing in a way that it isn't self-aware. I realize I've used the word refreshing a few times throughout this review, but it seems the perfect adjective to describe the noun that is fun which perfectly identifies what this thing is. Whether it be Groot getting his Hulk moment, Rocket executing his escape plan, Quill dancing around wearing his Walkman or Drax and Gamora kicking ass and taking names there is something to sit back and smile about while watching “Guardians of the Galaxy” and what more could you want from a summer blockbuster than it leaving a big, cheesy smile on your face?