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Entries in Guardians of the Galaxy [2014] (1)

Friday
Aug012014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Shadow of the Empire

Guardians of the Galaxy may be the most fun you'll have in a theatre this summer, but I hesitate to call it a movie. Director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have turned the little-known Marvel Comics property into a rambunctious, gorgeous, and adventure-filled universe. Too bad Disney's puffy-gloved thumb has squeezed out any narrative uniqueness in favor of Popcorn Cinema's Greatest Hits. The end result is a two-hour spectacle whose ingredients are so calibrated, market-tested and productized as to make the shell encasing them more beaker than blockbuster.

For the record, I really like Guardians of the Galaxy. In the moment, Gunn's comedic space fantasy feels like a welcome rain after two very dry summers. Thanks to a colorful main cast who fall into Joss Whedon's "Found Family" archetype; a save-the-universe story that's complex but not too convoluted; and a universe full of creatures, ships, and out-there planets that are actually worth pouring over, this carnival ride is definitely worth the price of admission.*

Chris Pratt stars as planet-hopping thief Peter Quill, a dashing cross between Indiana Jones and Boba Fett. His pursuit of a high-priced metal orb (which contains a universe-destroying weapon, naturally) lands him in the cross-hairs of several warring factions, as well as in the company of other lovable outlaws. Among them are a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper); the adopted daughter of a supervillain (Zoe Saldana); a vengeful colossus (Dave Bautista); and a tree-man who has more in common with The Iron Giant than just Vin Diesel's voice.

These reluctant heroes must come together to defeat a crazed, black-hooded zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace) before he can use this round weapon to destroy entire planets. Ronan's small potatoes, though, compared to Thanos (Josh Brolin), who mostly gives him orders via giant hologram from inside a massive chamber. In the end, the self-proclaimed Guardians lead a raid on Ronan's master ship, which is on its way to destroy the home world of the peaceful Kree resistance. Gamora engages in a sword fight with her age-old opponent/former friend, Nebula (Karen Gillan), while on a mission to disable the shield controls (which will allow the fleet of good guys to take down the vessel). At the last second, Nebula highjacks a fighter and exits the picture, sure to fight another day.

If you've just convulsed with flashbacks to 1977's Star Wars, congratulations on not falling completely under Disney's spell. The structural and archetypal similarities are glaring, and it's impossible for pop culture junkies not to recognize every single beat. Guardians of the Galaxy is like a game of charades, where the clues are scenes, characters, and themes that are just different enough to skirt claims of plagiarism. Gunn, Perlman, and Disney mix things up a bit, inserting elements of J.J. Abrams' recent Star Trek films and lots of Joss Whedon's Serenity. The cynical part of me recognizes that the Mouse House now owns Guardians, Star Wars, and, to a certain extent, Whedon and Abrams, and is not surprised that this film is--more than is publicly understood--a two-hour commercial for The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Episode VII.

I can't write the film off as retail propaganda, though, because there's so much artistry and fun involved. Everyone from the actors to the production designers to hair and makeup and the digital effect team approach the material as if breaking new ground. Guardians of the Galaxy zips along from set piece to set piece, with a snappy classic-rock soundtrack underscoring the big scenes. Sure, the movie has at least one too many "all is lost" moments, but Gunn invests them with grim panache that helps distract from the fact that none of these action figures (sorry, Unique and Very Expendable Characters) are in danger of missing out on the already announced sequel. In an especially beautiful and sad scene, Starlord comes very close to freezing to death in space; the filmmakers clearly used underwater filming techniques to achieve this, but transplanted the footage to a deep-space setting; the effect is downright haunting for a kids' movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy is sure to make a bajillion dollars this weekend, and I don't begrudge it that. My only gripe is that the story does a tremendous disservice to the originality and unabashed fun of everything that went into realizing it. For each badass moment of heroism, I had a split-screen moment in my head that played a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: Into Darkness, or, of course, one of the Star Wars movies.

I know there are original ideas out there in the vast, untapped realms of human imagination. But they're probably "too weird" to pass in mainstream, tentpole entertainment. Looking at a film like Serenity, for example--which was also about quirky, space-traveling thieves--Whedon had the courage and the permission to kill off one of his principal cast (for real) just ahead of the climax. This let the audience know that truly anyone was up for grabs in the next vicious, bloody twenty minutes--making the fight personal instead of perfunctory. For reasons I don't need to get into, Guardians of the Galaxy is a colorful, bursting bag of cotton candy, scientifically engineered to provide maximum flavor that will in no way challenge your palette. You're guaranteed to walk away stuffed and smiling, but dying for an actual meal.

*It's also worth the 3D up-charge: Gunn and his technical wizards give Guardians a striking sense of depth, proportion, and tips the audience into full immersion.

**They could have dropped one or two of these, honestly; I kept waiting for a "Now Available on iTunes" banner to pop up in the corner.