A Film Review of Guardians of the Galaxy
By Lawrence Napoli
Wow! There’s no doubt there were several concerns that hovered about this production which easily made it the biggest risk out of all the Marvel Studio, unified cinematic universe, films. No one knows who these “Guardians” are. Marvel heroes are more Earthbound as opposed to space. How is the obscure James Gunn getting a production budget of $170 million dollars? Can Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation anchor an action/adventure/sci-fi blockbuster? Rest easy, true believers. All concerns, all questions, all doubts and all hesitations are quickly and emphatically put to rest in the final cut of Guardians of the Galaxy. Even if you, the viewer, know absolutely nothing about these people, even if you are not easily moved by superhero movies, even if you have only fringe interest in the Avenger films, there is plenty of action, eye candy, effects and comedy to entertain even the driest humbug on a hot summer day. This movie is great fun for everyone of every age, so much so, that it has supplanted The Winter Soldier as this film reviewer’s favorite movie of the summer of 2014.
The story of Guardians, penned by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, describes a gathering of some loveable losers from all over the galaxy, but is framed within the personal journey of Star Lord aka Peter Quill aka Chris Pratt from the time he was taken from Planet Earth. Quill along with Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax are a collection of thieves, mercs, soldiers and thugs that are given the charming rogue treatment as each is afforded plenty of screen time to demonstrate their personal eccentricities, but also time to develop chemistry within the group; to bounce their very different personalities and agendas off each other in quite comedic fashion. This method of character development flows well with what amounts to a healthy dose of exposition that catches the audience up on what is happening in the Marvel Universe outside of Earth’s orbit. This may even seem a bit familiar to you, and it should, because it’s the same kind of group dynamic that was showcased in The Avengers and last I heard that film did pretty well for itself. The hook that gets the primary conflict rolling is the only direct link to the Avenger films and it centers on the pursuit of an “infinity item” and that means Thanos (more on him later). Finally, the audience is given an onscreen explanation of what these things are, what they can do and what it could possibly mean as provided by The Collector aka Benicio Del Toro. The rest of the story is a rather heart-warming journey of redemption, family and sacrifice, but what makes it interesting throughout is the fact that it never gets too serious or too dark thanks to the interplay within the group. The X-Men should have given the Guardians a call for tips on how to make a team-based, superhero film actually fun.
The film trailers that preceded the release of this movie were very clear about establishing Guardians as an action film and thankfully, Gunn backs up that promise with lots of hand to hand combat, gunplay, space flight, explosions and all other kinds of mischief and mayhem. Now, I won’t go as far as describing the action here as tactically proficient or as ferociously intense as The Winter Soldier, but the destruction that is left as a result of the combat action is performed, captured and framed with confidence which allows the audience to appreciate all of the activity. There may be a couple of scenes towards the middle of the film where some first person perspective space flight may move the frame at a blurring speed, but these scenes are isolated as wide shots are heavily favored for most of the action. Of course, the visual stimulation does not end at the movement within the frame as the digital fabrication of seemingly every location within this other-worldly adventure produces some of the most beautifully creative environments modern day sci-fi has been able to produce. I was a personal fan of the contrast between the majestic cleanliness of Xandar and the back alley, trading-post appeal of Knowhere. I also need to give an additional thumbs-up to the team in charge of digitally creating Rocket and Groot as entities that may not have had physical mass in reality, but their presence within the frame is seamlessly interwoven and indistinguishable from the live actors. Close-ups of Rocket and Groot reveal the level of detail given to both. One can practically count every hair protruding from Rocket’s face. One is almost moved to tears when Groot’s eyes well up. Oh yes, this production team used every single dollar of that (once again) $170 million dollar budget in every single frame that exudes sharpness, excellence and the best of what Hollywood magic can create.
Performances can be easily lost in a film that layers itself within the infinite folds of visual effects, but seeing how the concept of “character” was a plus for this movie, one cannot have it without solid acting. The voice-over work by Bradley Cooper as Rocket was something that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. I was expecting something very stylized, perhaps digitally filtered and fueled by high doses of caffeine to present a talking Raccoon with an attitude. Cooper’s Rocket is nothing like that. Cooper definitely alters his voice from his normal speak, but vocally presents Rocket as matter-of-fact, casual style which allows a wider birth for emotional shifting to anger and sadness when the moment calls for it. Vin Diesel isn’t exactly tasked with moving mountains by repeating the one sentence his character is capable of speaking, but he gives enough emotion in each instance to communicate to the audience that the walking tree is saying more than just “I am Groot.” Personally, I don’t know why an actor of Diesel’s visibility was cast for Groot, but perhaps James Gunn was a big fan of The Iron Giant (1999).
Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is rigid, disciplined, and focused … and basically the same kind of female action hero she is used to playing in the majority of her past roles. She is meant to be Star Lord’s love interest late in the film, but I wasn’t sold on the chemistry between their characters. Dave Bautista’s Drax (the Destroyer) may be interpreted by the casual audience member as just another pro wrestler struggling to make it as a proper actor in his first, truly featured role, but I saw more than that. So he isn’t exactly Laurence Olivier, but Bautista’s performance is sincere and one can tell he is trying to match the comedic timing of his costars in dialogue sequences. As long as Bautista remains genuine in his commitment to Marvel Studios, I’m sure he’ll be able to smooth out his mechanical delivery as well as maintaining the physicality his character demands. Michael Rooker’s Yondu was an interesting performance in that his character certainly was compelling, but made more so in that Yondu seemed very much like Meryl Dixon from The Walking Dead without the graphic racism and with blue makeup. I have no idea if Yondu in the comics is anything like that, but if you are a fan of Meryl’s, you’ll love Yondu.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by bigger names than the performances they produced. Lee Pace provides a prototypical bad guy in Ronan the Accuser. Dijmon Hounsou’s Korath is a forgettable, cookie-cutter underling of Ronan’s. Laura Haddock (you’ll remember her as Da Vinci’s Demons’ Lucrezia Donati) stuns the audience early in the film with a brief, but gut-wrenching scene as Star Lord’s mother. John C. Reilly’s “regular Joe” Nova Corps soldier literally has 3 scenes in the film, yet retains his patented JCR charm in all. Glenn Close’s Nova Prime is a throwaway. Benicio Del Toro’s Collector is an afterthought, which is odd seeing how it seemed his character would be more prominent thanks to his appearance in Thor: The Dark World.
And then there’s Chris Pratt as Star Lord. Yeah he was ok. I’m kidding. Pratt does a great job at combining his naturally comedic demeanor with an irreverent character that’s half hero, half rogue, but all heart. His character is a child of the 80s (literally) as Quill’s love of the popular songs of that era sets the tone (again, literally) for most of the scenes that play out in this film. Peter Quill/Star Lord is a character that probably shouldn’t even be present in this kind of story, yet somehow manages to hold his own thanks to a balanced application of technology, absurdity, firepower and cunning. The key to Pratt’s charisma is his comedy, but the laughs never become bigger than individual moments during the film that could distract the audience from seeing his character less as a hero and leader and more like a clown. He’s just a simple human trying to make his way in a galaxy of powerhouses, who’s able to keep stride because he’s got his shit together much more than his cavalier attitude presents.
Guardians of the Galaxy was the most fun I’ve had at the movies all summer long and my recommendation is for anyone who likes fun to go see this in any format they can get tickets for at your earliest convenience. The connections this movie has to the Avenger films may be brief, but they are extremely important. The main characters may be considered rip-offs of proper Avengers: (Star Lord = Iron Man, Groot = Hulk, Drax = Thor, Gamora = Black Widow, Rocket = some weird amalgam of Captain America and Hawkeye???), but that’s ok and really only noticeable to the most rabid fans. This movie doesn’t take itself as seriously as The Winter Soldier, but that isn’t a bad thing because it maintains a sense of levity despite the gravity of the danger which produces fun at every turn. The audience applauded the end of this film and I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t happen too often at the theatre anymore. The last time it did was for The Avengers and the time before that was Avatar, so that’s not bad company for the humble Guardians of the Galaxy to share company with.
Now I will launch into a breakdown of the appearance of the mad titan, Thanos.
Spoilers follow. This is your warning to stop scrolling now.
Here we go.
We finally get to see more of Marvel’s marquee super villain as he rests in the sanctuary he holds in the middle of nowhere-sville, space.
The first thing I noticed instantly was that the character has been visually redesigned from his brief appearance at the end of The Avengers. His skin is less purple and pinker, his chin folds are far less pronounced and it seems like his costume is comprised of full plate, golden armor. Personally, I felt Thanos’ look from The Avengers was a perfect representation from the comics short of his eyeballs actually being visible, but I can understand some alterations are necessary when transitioning from a live actor (in Avengers) to purely digital (in Guardians). The titan’s shade of purple skin must be restored at some point; I didn’t like the pink at all. I’ll give his chin alteration a pass. His golden armor seems a bit TOO gold and that was displayed with very low key lighting in the scene. Perhaps this is Kevin Feige’s ironic take on the character seeing how Thanos is a depraved nihilist obsessed with the concept AND personification of Death, but if he is to maintain this look in his future appearances it might become too sparkly on the screen when Thanos demonstrates the extent of his powers and abilities.
I’m on the fence regarding Thanos’ visual redesign. It isn’t terrible, but isn’t noteworthy. I suspect further alterations for his future appearances.
Then we heard Thanos speak … and … I was less than enthralled. I noticed a familiarity in the voice as it wasn’t nearly as bass as James Earl Jones’ Darth Vader or as ominous as Orson Wells’ Unicron. It was Josh Brolin’s voice. Josh Brolin? How was that decision made? Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind his performance, but I wasn’t intimidated in the least by it and if there’s anything Thanos needs to do – it’s to intimidate. For a character this important to the unified, cinematic universe, I would have figured Marvel to tap Mickey Mouse for a few extra bucks for someone a bit more capable in the VO profession. Who wouldn’t like to see Mark Hamil come up with something for Thanos?
Perhaps some digital filtering can help Brolin add some menacing undertones to what amounted as casual speak from Thanos in his one scene from Guardians, but once again, this was another element of Thanos’ appearance that I was not impressed by.
I felt that Thanos was animated perfectly for his one scene. That may seem like a loaded statement because all he really did was posture himself on his throne while remaining seated throughout. BUT, that is the character. An epicenter villain doesn’t pace about, shake fists or haphazardly break things. All of those activities demonstrate weakness. Like his counter-part in the DC universe (Darkseid), Thanos’ presence is all that is required to dominate a scene.
(Incidentally, I find it interesting how Darkseid’s standing posture is always of him with his arms folded behind his back, while Thanos is usually depicted with his arms folded across his chest – oh boy, that would be one hell of a stare down contest!)
The point is that a character like Thanos moves only when it is absolutely necessary and very little is to a being as powerful as him (but, he sure would acquire those infinity gems faster if he took a more direct approach). Even when Ronan betrays Thanos, his non-reaction is typical as there never seems to be any doubt in his mind that he will get what he wants, despite the circumstances.
All in all, it was nice to see Thanos be confirmed onscreen as the man behind the curtain, but it was bittersweet at best. Back to the drawing board for the mad titan!