Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for Marvel Studios

By Andrew Braid

Directed by James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro
Release Date: August 1, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D (specially formatted for IMAX screens)

It goes without saying now that Marvel Studios' cinematic hot streak is a game-changing, industry-shaping and unprecedented one. Even when one of their movies falls somewhat short of greatness (Iron Man 2, for instance), it still scores big time at the box office and any sour taste is quickly forgotten about once their next movie hits screens just a short while later. But all the risks they've taken along the way so far pale in comparison to what's riding on Guardians of the Galaxy, their 10th feature film since 2008 and the last "Phase 2" Marvel movie before next year's mega-anticipated release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Directed and co-written by James Gunn (the cult director of Tromeo and JulietSlitherSuper), Guardians follows a ragtag group of cosmic heroes that, in stark contrast to the likes of Iron Man, Thor or Captain America, the vast majority of viewers have never even heard of before. In fact, they even lack much of a long history on comic book shelves: while the original Guardians of the Galaxy team debuted back in 1969, the current team which the film adapts was only formed back in May 2008 (coincidentally at the same time the original Iron Man was released and kickstarted the whole Marvel Studios canon). This film is the make-it-or-break-it point, the film meant to kick the doors wide open to a whole slew of cosmic characters from the Marvel Universe, and most importantly proof that the studio can get audiences to not only turn out for but fall in love with their characters no matter how unfamiliar or obscure they may be. 
It's the biggest gamble Marvel has made so far, and I can most happily attest that, at least on a quality level, they've once again knocked it out of the park.

"What a bunch of a-holes..."

Guardians of the Galaxy opens with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child being abducted by a mysterious alien spacecraft in 1988, following what has already been a traumatic, emotionally devastating day for the young boy. In the present day he's become a self-styled intergalactic outlaw who calls himself Star Lord, roaming the galaxy on the lookout for his latest score. He believes he's found it when he comes across an unknown ancient artifact hidden on the planet Morag, one which he ends up escaping with by the skin of his teeth. But it turns out this orb contains an Infinity Stone (a term Marvel fans ought to be very familiar with), an immensely powerful and destructive object which could spell certain doom for billions of people on the planet Xandar, who are the target of the fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Ronan, under an agreement with the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin, setting the stage for his time to shine in Avengers 3), will stop at nothing to obtain the orb, and his genocidal quest gradually forces the Guardians of the Galaxy to form an uneasy alliance with one another. The role call includes vengeful brute Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), trained assassin and favoured "daughter" of Thanos Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the inseparable bounty hunter duo of walking tree Groot (Vin Diesel) and genetically-engineered raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper). They're the only hope Xandar has, and they're up to the task... if they don't get each other killed first.

Much like Captain Kirk before him, Gamora's not the only alien beauty that Star Lord's tried to win over with his charms...

When it's all boiled down to its base elements, the plot for Guardians of the Galaxy is a very familiar, well-worn one: a ragtag group of outsiders is forced together by circumstance to save the day from the forces of evil, all in the name of trying to secure a valuable MacGuffin object. But in terms of execution, director James Gunn the film counters this familiarity with a particular brand of winking acknowledgement and carefree irreverence. Peter Quill, a child of the 1980s still clinging to the dated pop culture of his youth before being scooped up from Earth, uses this filmgoing savvy not just for the sake of humour (particularly any line involving Footloose) but to point out the tropes the story is so gung-ho about diving into. Through Quill the film compares the orb everyone's chasing after to the Maltese Falcon, the classic movie king of MacGuffins. The opening credits unfurl as he sets foot on a mysterious new world in search of treasures, recalling Raiders of the Lost Ark with its moody, unknown atmosphere, only to soon undercut it once Peter kicks out the jams to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love". Much of Guardians of the Galaxy is built upon taking what you'd expect from a sci-fi action movie and subverting it with its own kooky sense of humour and self-awareness, all while still getting us genuinely engaged on an emotional level with its gang of misfit outlaws. Gunn's approach is much like that of his Marvel alumni Joss Whedon (albeit not quite so shoved in your face). And does it work? Well, as Rocket Raccoon might say...

"Oh... YEAH..."

Marvel's success on the moviemaking scene so far has all come down to their innate understanding of character, always giving it top priority over the story itself. Even if the film's story stumbles at any point, the audience will still be engaged if they're invested in the plights of our heroes and enjoy being in their company. Heck, even in a twisty, paranoia-laden conspiracy thriller setting like the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the focus of the film is put on the characters first and foremost. Guardians of the Galaxy is no different in that regard, prioritizing character interaction and comedic interplay above a galaxy-threatening plot that, for much of the runtime, our heroes can hardly muster any energy to care about. What's most impressive about Guardians is how well-balanced its titular ensemble is. All five of the Guardians each get ample time to shine with great laugh lines and badass action moments. Groot may lack a vocabulary (he only ever says "I am Groot"), but he more than makes up for it with heart and soul, always the most well-intentioned of the group. Rocket Raccoon takes every chance he gets to steal a scene, combining flippant wisecracking with the impassioned anger of a wounded animal. He's experienced much abuse and loneliness in his past, and needs the powerful yet naive Groot by his side more than he'd ever like to admit. Dave Bautista proves a huge surprise as Drax, playing his violent, dumb bruiser of a character with such utter conviction and sincerity that he actually manages to get some of the biggest laughs in the entire movie. Zoe Saldana's Gamora is namely playing the straight-woman of the group dynamic (an essential part of any real comedy ensemble), but she gets plenty of opportunity to kick ass in a fight and shows strong chemistry with Chris Pratt's Star Lord (I will now never stop laughing at the phrase "pelvic sorcery"). Speaking of Star Lord, Chris Pratt takes his big breakthrough opportunity and owns it in what's destined to be a star-making turn. Pratt oozes brash swagger, coolness and charm, and he kills it when it's time to show the character's goofier side. At the same time though he allows us to see the more emotional underbelly of what makes Peter Quill tick, a man clearly shaped by unresolved traumas and a longing for the life he's lost.

Another close escape for the legendary outlaw Star Lord...

The film is packed with inventive and high-energy action throughout its running time, delivering all the spaceship battles, brawls and shootouts one could ask for without ever going too overboard into excess. The action is always tied into the flow of the story- it never exists purely for its own sake, and it's always infused with a smattering of laughs as our mismatched team of outlaws bicker and struggle to coordinate with one another. It's all supported by fantastic visual effects, creating worlds of huge scale and creating all manner of alien characters through both extensive makeup work and first-class computer animation. Rocket and Groot in particular are amazing CG creations- if Superman's tagline was "You will believe a man can fly", then Guardians of the Galaxy's tagline ought to be "You will believe a raccoon can talk, while also wielding a high-powered space machine gun". Further adding to the visual grandeur is the use of 3D, something which Marvel movies have struggled to really utilize up to this point (usually ranging from decent yet unnecessary to downright detrimental to the viewing experience). Despite being post-converted the film was clearly planned with 3D in mind, having a lot of fun throwing things at the audience, swooping through tight openings in ship chases, and evoking a grand sense of awe as every new location seems to reach out into the stars of space. I particularly have to recommend seeing the movie in IMAX 3D if you can, as several scenes from the movie have expanded the film's aspect ratio to fill the full IMAX frame, making for one truly eye-popping experience.

Aside from being equally hilarious and flat-out awesome, Rocket and Groot are amazing creations of CG visual effects, making them all the easier to believe in as characters.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the most shamelessly fun, deliriously funny, and satisfyingly action-stuffed blockbuster this whole summer, one that's destined to have amazing replay value among both Marvel fans and movie fans in general. Unlike previous continuity-heavy "Phase 2" Marvel films Guardians is wholly accessible as a standalone action-comedy, yet the Marvel diehards can still expect to be greatly rewarded as they see how this latest film fits into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (and get some cool character cameos and easter eggs in the process). It revels in and slyly winks at its own sense of familiarity, all while using its amazing cast interplay, offbeat humour and killer soundtrack to infuse it with its own distinct and irresistible flavour. The summer movie season this year has recently been suffering a deadly dry spell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes notwithstanding), and Guardians of the Galaxy proves to be the perfect blockbuster  to give the moviegoing scene some much-needed spark and vitality again.
While every hot streak has to go cold at some point, for the moment at Marvel it seems that the sky's the limit. Heck, if Guardians is any indication, the limit clearly goes beyond not just the sky but the reaches of space itself.

Final Review Score: 9.5 / 10

+ An amazing cast where everyone on our team of heroes gets ample time to shine
+ A gut-bustingly hilarious script with tons of killer team interplay and subversive irreverence
+ An expertly paced 2 hours that's packed with one exciting, creative action sequence after another
+ Fantastic visual effects are joined by surprisingly great use of 3D (particularly in IMAX)
+ Accessible blockbuster fun that's still stuffed with fanservice 
+ The music (both Tyler Bates' score and the lively 70s/80s soundtrack) kick all kinds of ass, proving integral to the film's distinct identity
+ That end-credits scene... (I wouldn't dare spoil it, it's just too awesome)