Friday, August 1, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

         I AM so in GROOT with this movie…

            At what point does popular culture begin eating itself? Whatever the exact moment may be in a culture’s lifespan, the climate of our own has certainly passed it, where pop culture has not only eaten itself, but then regurgitated it up only to devour the already-chewed remnants. Guardians of the Galaxy is one such concoction: a stew of references to the 80’s blockbusters of Spielberg and his ilk, Top 40 pop hits and - that current king of all popular culture - Marvel comic books. But co-writer/director James Gunn isn’t just sitting on his laurels here and coasting on the goodwill of what has come before to give a knowing wink to the audience. Instead, Gunn engages those songs and references and familiar comforts of entertainment and uses them to illustrate how much they’ve become a way we contextualize our own lives. Ultimately, Gunn is tackling our current relationship to the pop culture we consume daily and framing it in a fashion that is surprisingly human.

            All of that pretentious mumbo-jumbo aside, he’s also managed to create one of the singularly most fun movies you’ll likely see in this or any summer movie-going season. Guardians of the Galaxy is a sheer blast of exuberant joy from beginning to end, a film that is equal parts funny, thrilling and heart-warming. Of course, when you’ve got a movie that pairs a walking tree with a wise-ass, gun-toting raccoon, it’s kind of hard to see how it won’t be a complete blast, but what’s most pleasantly surprising about the latest Marvel movie is how emotional it gets. You’ll walk out of this movie both wanting to dance and give someone you love a big hug, and it’s quite an accomplishment given all of the pixelated nonsense it utilizes to give you just such a response. It all goes back to character, something that Marvel Studios figured out when they struck gold with Iron Man way back in 2008 and have since perfected into a well-oiled art-form.

            But, before we commence with the love-fest, we should probably tackle what doesn’t work first. Don’t worry - there’s not much here that’s going to do anything to dampen the truly fantastic work being done elsewhere in the film. But GOTG does have problems, and, since they’re problems all of the Marvel movies seem to fall prey to in one way or another, they deserve pointing out. First things first: the villains are definitely on the weak side. They certainly look impressive (especially that spot-on look of Ronan the Accuser), and they’re played with much enthusiasm by talented actors like Lee Pace and Karen Gillan. But we don’t get much into their motivation other than they’re really bad and they want to destroy stuff. It winds up not being much of a factor when the heroes themselves are so much fun to watch, but a little more insight into the villains' characters would have made the movie work even better. This is also the first time we get a good look at Josh Brolin portraying uber-baddie Thanos (who you’ll remember showing up in the tease for Avengers), and while he looks impressive enough, he doesn’t really do much of anything. It’s fairly obvious Marvel is saving him up for Avengers 3, but a little more insight into what he’s all about would have been nice, as the character is actually rather great: a power-mad titan hellbent on destroying the universe to prove his love to the very embodiment of Death itself.

            Marvel is also starting to fall back on the rather stock plot of having a vague yet all-powerful something that the heroes and villains are chasing each other after. Of course, it’s hard to blame them too much, as GOTG makes possibly the best use of that particular plotline out of all the Marvel films thus far, using it as a clothesline to hang its many varied and colorful characters from. Our main hero here is Peter Quill, aka “Star-Lord,” thief, grave-robber and all around scoundrel of the galaxy, played to perfection by the always-reliable Chris Pratt. Pratt has been slowly climbing the Hollywood ladder for a while now, and I suspect that this is the film that will finally push him into movie stardom. As Peter Quill, Pratt is everything you want from a leading man in a movie like this, while still bringing his own unique personality to the table. He is definitely channeling Harrison Ford at his Han Solo/Indiana Jones best, but with mad improve skills. Just like Downey and Hemsworth and Evans before him, Marvel continues their tradition of perfectly casting their lead actors.

            As wonderfully funny as Pratt is, he’s not even the most humorous character. It’s often up to Pratt to play straight man to his team-mates, who each get equal care and attention in being brought to life on screen. It was clear early on that Rocket Raccoon would be the breakout character of the film, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Voiced by Bradley Cooper in an almost put-on New Yorker accent, Rocket is equal parts as funny as he is crazy, but what might surprise you is the depth of emotion given to the little runt. It turns out that, beneath his gruff, gun-toting exterior, Rocket is a rather sad and damaged little creature - an experiment gone wrong and thus, the only one of his kind. There’s a scene halfway through the movie that starts out as a raucous drunken barfight with the little manic raccoon at its center,which soon turns somber as Rocket reveals his origins, and its amazing how well Gunn, Cooper and the legion of animators handle the switch in Rocket’s demeanor.  

            Of course, we all kind of expected Pratt and the raccoon to deliver the goods, so it comes as just as much of a surprise that the other Guardians pretty much steal the show. Especially amazing is Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, a meathead berserker who cherishes the thrill of violence yet can’t quite grasp the meaning of a metaphorical statement. He’s a great character, and Bautista’s deadpan delivery results in some of the biggest laughs the movie provides, but still, Drax never becomes tired or one-note - much like Rocket, there’s a deep pain lurking within the living weapon’s soul, a facet of the character which Bautista also ably portrays.

            Not content with already starring in two huge scifi franchises, Zoe Saldana this time goes green to play the part of Gamora, Thanos’ adopted daughter who is desperate to separate herself from her “father”and the crazies he aligns himself with. Saldana is predictably badass in the role, but also, like Bautista, never lets her character devolve into some one-note warrior woman. There’s a wonderful vulnerability that Saldana gets across with the character, without sacrificing an ounce of the character’s harder edge.

            But, as fantastic as all the players are, it will most likely be Vin Diesel as the sentient tree Groot who steals your heart here. With only three words (plus two other perfectly chosen ones), Diesel and the animators manage to make possibly the most fascinating of all the creatures on display. Make no mistake: Groot will break your heart, make you laugh and cry in equal measures before you get to the end. Take the moment towards the end, where Groot dispatches a roomful of attackers in a most spectacular and hilarious fashion. The scene works not just because of the spectacle (which it most certainly provides) or because it is funny (which is most certainly is) - the scene works because we have grown close to Groot and the other characters over the course of the movie. That’s kind of why we have characters in movies in the first place - so we can have a proper vessel with which to travel through whatever crazy world the film provides for its audience and get us emotionally invested in what the film's trying to say. You’d think such a thing would be common sense by now - making us care about the characters before they’re thrown headlong into the heavy, effects-driven action scenes - but for much of Hollywood, that simple fact remains elusive. Which makes GOTG’s success in that regard all the more refreshing.

            Also refreshing is how the film just radiates with James Gunn’s infectious energy for the material. Much like the DNA of Shane Black was embedded within every frame of Iron Man Three, GOTG is a James Gunn movie, through and through. It’s no secret that Marvel is much more the producer’s show (in the case of the MCU, Kevin Fiege) than it is any given director (and it seems to be moving forward even more in that direction with the recent kerfluffles going on with the Ant-Man movie), so it is most relieving to see a filmmaker like Gunn be unleashed with his wild imagination and a massive budget, instead of being reigned in by a “house” style or trivial plot points to tie into future Marvel movies. The simple fact that the movie exists in the state it does  is rather miraculous, and both Marvel and James Gunn should be patting themselves on the back for knocking it out of the park as hard as Whedon did when he took the reigns of Averngers.

            Equally refreshing is this current crop of Marvel movie’s growing level of sophistication. It all started when IM3 decided to be all hoity-toity and develop a rather deep and intricate theme to tie itself together in a nice little bow for viewers eager to read more into the Marvel movies other than what’s on the surface. This continued with the most recent Captain America, which had some really sly politicking going on throughout the film. Guardians of the Galaxy is no different, as here we get some of the most emotional scenes Marvel’s had so far and actually have it pay off in terms of the overall story.

            Which brings us back to the pop culture diatribe we opened with. Because, you see, GOTG is very sly in its deconstruction of how we use pop culture as sort of guideposts to tie our memories and experiences together. It’s the same reason Peter Quill starts to tear up when he hears “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on the last mix-tape his dying mother made for him before he was abducted from Earth. As Gunn’s movie shows, we use popular culture to help define and contextualize our own lives. Favorite songs, favorite movies… even the very Marvel comics from which these films sprung from all hold their own emotional keys to our hearts and minds. You could take the cynical route and decry how pitiful humanity has become that it needs make-believe stories with which to view reality, or you could be more optimistic and be thankful for these flights of fancy and their ability to make you feel and provide another perspective on the world.... as with all things, it is a matter of perception. I suspect whatever any given individual takes away from this facet of Guardians of the Galaxy will tell them far more about themselves than anything in the actual movie. 

            * A word of warning on the post-credits stinger: it’s more of a gag than what we’ve come to expect; certainly not setting up any future films (or at least, I don’t think it is…). But, if you’re a long-time Marvel Comics fan, it’s hard to see how it won’t put a smile on your face. Me? I loved the hell out of it, if only for the sheer fact that it shows that there are literally no limits to what Marvel Studios is now willing to do with their cinematic universe.


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