Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Guardians of the Galaxy was probably the biggest cinematic success story of 2014. So many other pictures had a higher profile – they starred Tom Cruise, or Ben Affleck, had Oscar-bait storylines, or were based on very popular novels... Meanwhile, GotG is about a group of galactic criminals and misfits who are all chasing the lead to either claim the bounty on him, or to take back the powerful artifact that he steals in the movie’s opening scene.

And Guardians hid its highest-profile names with makeup or CGI to portray: a rodent (Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon), a tree (Vin Diesel as Groot), and a green chick with a weird jaw (Zoe Saldana as Gamora). This is before we round out the protagonists with a red-skinned thug played by an MMA guy (Dave Bautista as Drax), and the lead - an earth conman who’s lost in space played by an actor from Parks & Recreation (the formerly cherubic-chubby Chris Pratt as Star-Lord).

You simply don’t expect that kind of central cast to front a movie that’s an unmitigated blockbuster hit (which actually parallels the success of these underdogs in their fictional story), but the audiences spoke with their dollars: earning $331M in North America and another $439M around the world, it’s both the third highest-grossing pic of 2014 and the third highest-grossing pic out of all the Marvel Cinematic pictures – which is extra insane since both the Marvel pix ahead of it had at least 4 films as a setup. Better still, the critical response was very strong, and most everyone I knew loved the hell out of the thing.

So now, it’s time for me to open my big stupid trap and chime in. Well, I should start with something that I’ve stated here before: I was a fan of comics in my teens, but stopped reading them not long before I started college (and also started dating, which I’m sure is no coincidence). I wasn’t sure that GotG was based on pre-existing characters - I simply assumed that fact, because the comic companies have done more recycling and refurbishing lately than an Apple Store. Despite my abandonment of them, I am very familiar with the general vibe of comic books from the 70's to the 90's.

So perhaps the best thing about Guardians is that it’s post-post-post-times-5-modern, yet feels like an old movie. I’m not talking about the way that Super 8 felt like a mimeograph of E.T. by looking like E.T. and resembling many of the emotional aspects of E.T., I’m talking about possessing both the look and the feel of a movie made in the 70s or early 80s. The opening sequence felt like a gleeful update of Raiders of the Lost Ark, pulled it off successfully, and kept something like that vibe going for much of the film’s running time.

I really enjoyed it and, although I don’t think I responded as strongly as other people did (i.e., I didn’t love it to death), I can explain why. For one thing, I’m very accustomed to certain aspects of this story: I’ve been a devotee of Farscape since that wonderful show’s first season, so the “this criminal crew is always at odds and they’re all misfits, and they might turn on each other” thing was old hat to me even by the time that Firefly and Battlestar Galactica did the same thing. Conflicts seem to inspire better writing and better scenes than harmony – fighting between the major roles allows for lots of fun and tension, and provide good opportunities for character development.

Now, that element is great here. We get some one-on-one time with most of the players, enough to make them distinct and to demonstrate their own personalities and goals. We see them gradually become familiar with and/or trusting of each other. Then, the fractiousness among them provides more opportunities to develop each part, with that friction feeling justified and rewarded when they all team up on an equal footing.

But “I’ve seen that before” is not even a complaint so much as it is an observation and hypothesis. Maybe other people were even more blown away by the movie than I was because they only had a few other experiences like this (see also: The Avengers, and the way that group coalesces by the end of that film).

Something that does nearly rise to the level of a real flaw, however, is the central plot device: all of the action is centered on what Star-Lord does in the opening, which is diminished by his ignorance. Further still, even the viewers are ignorant as to what the magical mcguffin is for a long while.

And, while that doesn’t make the story any less fun, keep in mind that we don’t get enough information about the main antagonist. Ronan (Lee Pace) certainly seems powerful and scary, and his depiction as a force of nature who operates on an extreme sense of law and order fits what I recall from the comics. But his main plan is to use the artifact to destroy the planet Xandar – no matter how crazy Ronan may be, we don’t get enough of a reason behind that hatred to get us super-involved in his plotline. These are bigtime intergalactic stakes we’re playing for, after all, so one line about "they killed my father during the old war" isn't enough.

Now all these facts – the things the writers kind of elide, or don’t give enough time, or the fact that audiences are now used to seeing a mismatched collection of antiheroes – make it noticeably easier for the script to bring the players together. And since the second lead, Gamora, is chasing what Star-Lord found, that does provide the minimal “no it’s not too coincidental” narrative bridge for what follows... Also, it helps that the opening scene is really, really good.

And yet it still feels too close to a writerly cheat or cheap shortcut, because it’s not great to use a film’s beginning to introduce the story and the main character and the plot device that drives the whole tale – especially when the lead has no knowledge of what they’re actually doing. It’s fun when the heroes’ plan starts to fall apart immediately, but it’s worse when it looks like you can see the seams in the writing team’s master plan.

But, really, I can gloss over all of those. I think what really kept me from enjoying the picture as much as other people did (and as much as I kind of expected to) is that I saw this at home. As nice as my TV is, and as good as my sound system is, I realized early on that GotG had some of the best special effects (and accompanying sound design) that I’ve ever witnessed and that my setup didn’t do it justice. At home, I was very impressed and admired Gunn’s efforts. In the theater? I would’ve felt like my socks had just attained escape velocity. Sure, I’ve seen lots of beautiful space CGI (especially from the shows named above, and Interstellar), but Guardians had imagery that was just exquisite – and it wasn’t limited to the action sequences.

Above everything else that I’ve written here, even the negative-sounding critiques: this movie is all-out fun, the characters are engaging, and its emotional moments feel completely earned. Those three strengths put it head-and-shoulders above a lot of the competition, although I wasn’t knocked on my ass by how good this was in the same way that I was by The Avengers (possibly because I did see it in the theater). This movie isn’t so light as to be frivolous, or as to not make you feel or the roles and the situation they’re in, but it’s never so dark that it feels like an angst-ridden attempt to be “gritty” or “dark” or “progressive.”

It’s simply a bit mind-numbing that a cinematic work like this can do its job well while also serving as a vehicle to properly introduce Thanos – the big bad guy that Marvel films have been building up to all along – and that it doesn’t feel like a total clusterf—k, or a cheap attempt to start a spin-off franchise. There are lots of potential reasons to feel jaded about this movie, and yet they will surely all fade from your view, leaving you with only a very pleasant viewing experience.

Finally, those of you who know me personally understand how much of an audiophile I am. I make mix CDs for people I like and/or love, I listen to music all day, and I revere and worship certain film soundtracks. If for some reason you do not know this already, then I’ll tell you now – GotG has the sort of relationship with its soundtrack that is seldom witnessed outside of a Quentin Tarantino film. The music here is just top-notch: beautifully-selected, beautifully-presented, and mixed in so wonderfully and appropriately with both the action and the story. Actually, QT is the perfect reference as these top-flight tracks are all righteous 70s-era hits. I imagine if I were a film-maker, I’d either get my story-soundtrack synergy down from my very first movie onwards, or it would take me four or five efforts to get impact and effect that I’d want. To James Gunn’s credit, neither Super nor Slither suggested that the director/writer was capable of something like this.

God, they didn’t even use “Hooked on a Feeling” the way I would’ve expected them to. For one thing, the contrast between the song and the scene it appears in is just magnificent. For another, I was 100% sure that the song would be used again either in the climax, or just as the credits started to roll. I was 100% wrong instead, and I’m glad that this picture wasn’t predictable, despite its flaws and despite not being quite as orgasmic as promised.

Maybe I just have no idea how to review this movie properly, and my thoughts are all disjointed. But, for anyone who shamefully skipped the body of the and just wants to know the general outcome: Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun, well-paced, beautifully-filmed action/adventure story set in outer space. It might not be as insanely funny or wonderful as your friends have been telling you, but that’s like wishing for a $200k Lamborghini and getting a model that only costs $175,000. The characters are vivid and engaging, the dialogue is often quite funny, and the audio and visual elements are top-notch. And it’s certainly as fun a viewing experience as rumors say – at least as entertaining as anything that came out in 2014, even Big Hero 6.


  1. Good write-up,Thaddeus, and I agree that Ronan wasn't much of a villain there(I suspect he was merely meant as an intro to Thanos, who will be in the next Avengers movie or two).

    I saw GOTG at home as well and really admired the visual beauty of the film as well as the character development amongst the leads. I've never read the comics(did you catch the Howard the Duck cameo during the end credits?) but if the funky cool vibe that the movie has is there, then kudos to all concerned.

    I remember Bautista from his wrestling days and he was perfect for this role(as was Pratt and Saldana) but got to tip my hat to Bradley Cooper. He's a decent actor in regular films but his voice work as Rocket really sold the character.

    James Gunn does have the knack for old school story telling; Slither had a nice twisted monster movie energy to it and solid casting as well(didn't see Super) and hopefully, he'll be able to spread his artistic wings even wider.

    1. Thank you! I think they could've done more with him. I was also laughing because his voice sounds like the actor who played the Master's #1 vampire in the first two eps of Buffy (he was also the alien bounty hunter on X-Files). I'm totally blah about Thanos, though - it's the kind of over-the-top villain that can be done well in a comic, novel, or tv series, but can seldom be nailed in a movie.

      I'm glad you liked it, too. I never read the comic, myself, but it did match the vibe of that era (I was blown away when I learned the comic is from 1969). Yeah, I saw the last scene, and it neither bothered nor amazed me.

      Damn, you're right about Gunn. Slither has this strong 50's b-movie vibe, maybe combined with the sensibilities of an 80's horror film. And Super has the feel of both 70's exploitation/revenge films and also the vibe of parody films from around the same era (stuff like Airplane!, Kentucky Fried Movie)...

      Are you gonna review this movie as well?

    2. Actually, the villain of GotG was supposed to be Thanos, but Marvel pulled him off the table, since he's being saved for The Infinity War (coming in 2018?).

      Ronan's in line with the villain from Thor: The Dark World as a guy who doesn't have clear motivations other than "I'm the bad guy, I'm here to do bad." Among the villains in the movie, the only worthwhile character is Karen Gillan's Nebula. Wish the movie had been more about her.

    3. Yeah, DJ, it's one of those things where Ronan would've been better if he had appeared in some of the other Marvel films. Once you establish his personality as an extreme lawman type, and how powerful he is, you can then jump to "he heard about some powerful weapon and he wants revenge for his pop" or "he's gonna roam the galaxy laying down Kree law everywhere."

      The Thanos thing would be weird, but at least it would've given more oomph to the story of Gamora and Nebula. I find the infinity gems thing to just be overalll stupid - and I say that as someone who bought all the comics in that series.

      And, yes, there should've been much more Nebula here. Gillan is unrecognizable, and she has a very vivid and interesting character.

  2. I agree with you,DJ, Nebula was far more interesting and I hope she appears in the GOTG sequel.

    Thaddeus, I saw GOTG awhile ago, so I might not review it right away but will mention it in my upcoming Oscar predictions post. GOTG did get a number of technical noms(including Best Make-up, a favorite category of mine) and so on board with you about the Tarantino-esque use of music here. Too bad the Academy doesn't have a "Creative Musical Placement" category for soundtracks like this!

    1. Well, I look forward to reading your post! I think the Academy should take some time out and reconsider their categories, the way they manage the event, the whole thing...

  3. Another excellent review, I agree that the plot could have been a bit tighter. About the villain - I think that perhaps in the last few years we saw so many good and charismatic villains, also in comic book films, that whenever someone is not Loki they feel bland, but the truth is in comic books to my knowledge, the villains were usually primarily evil and that's that. My favs were always the ones from Batman stories because they were actually complex.

    I'll never get the appreciation for the way space looked in Interstellar btw.

    1. I see what you're saying about the villains in general--the classic case of that in film is the original Star Wars trilogy, where the opening crawl identifies the bad guys as the EVIL GALACTIC EMPIRE and you don't need much exposition beyond that to get their motivation.

      But in Thor: the Dark World and GotG, you have villains who are supposed to present a threat of universal/galactic destruction, and that's a bit tougher to explain than "empires try to stop rebellions." In GotG, Ronan's introduced as a religious fanatic who's upset about a treaty, and somewhere in the middle of the film that turns into "He's going to destroy the galaxy, guys!" without much explanation for why he'd want to do anything like that. Since stopping Ronan is the cause that's supposed to bring our mismatched protagonists together, it'd be nice to understand what his deal is.

      In the end, the stakes of the film really boil down to "Ronan's going to destroy the Nova homeworld, a planet we give a damn about because John C. Reilly's a very sympathetic actor." While I enjoyed GotG a lot, it would've been even better if Ronan was a less disposable and generic villain. Lee Pace is a terrible thing to waste.

  4. Thank you! Yeah, the Batman movies had genuinely interesting villains (although I don't think I can quite say that about tDKR - at the least, it has the weakest villain of the three), and it's a shame that they couldn't do more with Ronan. Come to think of it, Djimon Hansou plays Ronan's right hand man and he barely has a pulse or more than two lines.

    Under those circumstances, they really should've gone all-out with Nebula. Yknow, they don't need to make the antagonists amazingly charming or fascinating or whatever - they just have to give them enough time to allow them to be (a) clear to the audience and (b) engage the viewers. I guess it was too difficult here because they had to introduce so much.

    As to Interstellars visuals: I saw it on the second largest IMAX screen in the world. This was likely a factor.

    1. That is an excellent, excellent point on Nebula. She had by far the most charisma out of the villains in this movie. Something I forgot - they actually featured Thanos in mid credits scene in Avengers. It's so odd how they are introducing him - mid credits scene and here a minute or two where he is supposed to be this big villain? It all feels rather anticlimatic to me.

    2. "Yeah, the Batman movies had genuinely interesting villains (although I don't think I can quite say that about tDKR - at the least, it has the weakest villain of the three), and it's a shame that they couldn't do more with Ronan."

      To be fair, though, I think the problem with Bane was the opposite of Ronan: tDKR gives Bane so much backstory his motivations become muddled. What he's about gets buried under the whole business of being a terrorist/cult leader/modern day Fagin with a semi-Marxist bent who's oddly focused on destroying a single billionaire's life.

    3. Thanks! It's really quite cool - her behavior is clearly-understood (obey these powerful people into whose service she's been forced), but she's not bland or blank. She's jealous of her adoptive sister, and she'd love to betray Thanos because he destroyed her life and forcibly altered her body. This makes her the standout baddie of the film, and one of the most memorable roles - which is amazing, given her screen time.

      The Thanos thing... He's supposed to be this master plotter who uses proxies to do a lot of the legwork. In these movies, he is manipulating diverse groups of people to get what he wants - those power stones.

      And to people who haven't read the comics, all you can tell is what he's an alien who works with lots of people (Chitauri, Loki, Ronan of the Kree), that people fear him, and that he turned two women into his personal assassins (after totally destroying their lives). But yeah, what we have here is mostly reputation, and that's not too compelling...

    4. DJ, you're dead-on here. Gamora has a good reason to stop him, and so does Drax, but that's a big step away from "omg we must save THIS planet." And, yes, the jump from "I'm gonna avenge my pops" to "I'm gonna destroy one planet after the other" is a bit too much...

    5. DJ, it's not just that it gets buried. It's a longass movie and his motivations and beliefs aren't clear, which isn't good st all.

      Is everyone who was in his imprisonment situation eager to join the league of shadows? What was his training like, with that injury he got? Why does he support the league now when their leader wanted him dead? Hell, why is he working with the main villain? These questions are far from clear.

      And please note that a late twist SPOILERS basically takes away his background. It was a far bigger criticism of tDKR than "how does Bruce get back to Gotham?"


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