Science fiction has already had a great year at the movies – the warped Snowpiercer, the excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America 2, and the critically-acclaimed-yet-to-be-seen-by-this-writer-who-hangs-his-head-in-shame Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin, Godzilla reboot, and Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow. With Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the genre’s streak of greatness continues, and will likely do so until the end of the year, with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the penultimate Hunger Games instalment still to come.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel and director James Gunn (known before this for the great indies Slither and Super) make an action star out of Chris Pratt (known before GOTG for mostly playing loveable, bumbling, well-meaning fools, like Andy Dwyer on NBC’s fantastic Parks and Recreation). Pratt is Peter Quill, a resident of Earth who gets abducted by aliens as a child in 1988. Fast-forward 26 years and he’s an intergalactic thief with a penchant for ’70s pop and Motown music on his “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” tape. We follow him, dancing, singing and lip-synching his way through a heist: Quill steals a sought-after orb as easily and confidently as Pratt owns the lead role in what is likely to become Marvel Studios’ new “it” franchise. A sequel, to be helmed by Gunn, is already slated for 2017.
Everyone wants the orb and while some know about the frightening power it yields, only one, GOTG‘s main baddie Ronan (Lee Pace), wants to use it to destroy planets. Ronan is one-dimensional, hell-bent on levelling his enemies’ planets. He’s all evil, with not much background. At first it seems he is a puppet for Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a motion-captured performance), the Marvel villain that will likely link the Guardians world to the Avengers’. Ronan sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana, a bad ass in this role), who has plans of her own to sell it to The Collector (Benecio Del Toro) for a pretty penny, to retrieve the orb from Quill. There are also two CGI characters, a tree named Groot voiced by Vin Diesel, who only ever says “I am Groot,” and a Pesciesque raccoon named Rocket voiced by Bradley Cooper. On paper, the duo seem odd, at best, and a total disaster at worst. In reality, they elevated the fun tenfold, playing off each other and providing laughs aplenty. Groot and Rocket are bounty hunters, and Quill is worth 40,000 units, the currency used on the many planets they visit. The quartet gets arrested and sent to an intergalactic prison where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), from a planet on which metaphors and sarcasm do not exist. Nothing goes over Drax’s head, the strapping Herculean alien proclaims, because his reflexes are too quick. The quintet escapes in one of the most thrilling and funny scenes in the 121-minute film. There’s nary a dull moment in the film. Gunn hops from one scene to the next, with the jokes also never ceasing. The film also stars Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Djimon Honsou, Michael Rooker, Laura Haddock and Peter Serafinowicz. There are a lot of people, but the zingers aren’t split evenly, with Pratt, Cooper, Diesel and Bautista eliciting the most laughs, with the most outrageous lines or exciting action scenes.
While I commend Gunn on the challenge of making the Guardians ensemble feel familiar, friendly and likeable right out of the gate – without the luxury The Avengers had of most of its ensemble being ultra popular by virtue of their standalone films – it felt like there were a few things that were left unexplained or under-explained, especially when it came to the different planets in the galaxy. The CGI throughout is great: it’s probably second to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this summer. The set pieces are impressive and Groot and Rocket are gorgeously animated. The planets all look really cool and different from any alien planet we’ve seen, and different from each other, but with no background provided, it’s a lot of flash and not much substance. Of course, with a Guardians sequel coming in three years, that world is ripe for exploration. Guardians of the Galaxy is a blast and a wonderfully immersive first entry in the series.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)