Sunday, 3 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)

It’s a bit of a stretch to refer to any cinematic offering from Marvel as a risk; the brand name alone will get people to watch the film regardless of it’s quality, but Guardians is undoubtedly one of the boldest moves in their grand plan. Not only are they new characters to the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), but they are new to a lot of casual fans like me, with none of the established cultural weight of Thor, Hulk or Captain America. It’s set out in space, jumping from new planet to new planet, throwing character names and entire races at you every few minutes.

After so much box office success (and a substantial amount of critical acclaim too) there has been a lot of speculation that the studio might end up regretting green-lighting the adventures of Starlord and co. I’ve felt that much of this has been blown out of proportion simply because I don’t think it will matter in the long run if Guardians fails, it will simply be seen as an unfortunate mistake, quickly forgotten once the publicity blitz for Avengers 2 gets into gear.

If it was a gamble, it’s one I suspect is going to pay off handsomely, for Marvel and for fans, because Guardians of the Galaxy is excellent.  It is a rebirth of the space opera sub-genre, full of unlikely heroes, space battles and aspiring galaxy conquerors for villains, that manages to feel fresh and slightly retro at the same time.

Guardians is the story of Peter Quill, aka Starlord, played by Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation) and the rag tag bunch of allies who team up to stop Ronan The Accuser from destroying an entire planet. Quill is a cross between Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk, the classic scoundrel with a heart of gold and the audiences’ way into a story that includes a talking raccoon and a tree-creature with an extremely limited vocabulary. Taken from earth as a young child with only the contents of his back pack to remind him of home, he’s a character who clearly loves his adventurous lifestyle but still longs for a lost sense of home. Chris Pratt is excellent and is clearly bound for big things, already cast as the lead in the new Jurassic Park film next summer. He sells the comedy and the action well, and while he will always be Andy Dwyer to me, he has the potential to be a major player in big budget blockbusters over the next decade.

The casting of an actor most well known for his comedy work was surely a deliberate move by director James Gunn, because Guardians is great fun and often extremely funny. The moments that risk straying into melodrama or cheese are offset by a sarcastic joke or a comment that feels entertainingly crude by Marvel standards; it’s an entirely different animal to the latest Captain America (which I loved and reviewed here) and I am fairly certain that it’s not an accident that Marvel scheduled their most serious and their most comic efforts in the same year.

I was fairly confident going into the cinema that Guardians would be fun from the trailer and the interviews with cast and crew, but I was pleasantly surprised by the heart it has. It’s a credit to the CGI work, vocal performances of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper and the script by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, that we are able to connect with Groot (the tree) and Rocket (the raccoon) so effectively. While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (review coming soon, hopefully) will rightly take the majority of the gongs for visual effects come awards season, both films boast extremely well realised characters, with a level of subtlety and complexity that would have been impossible a decade ago.

The remaining two members of the Guardians are Zoe Saldana’s green skinned assassin Gamora and former wrestler Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Both are solid in their roles, given enough depth and back story to avoid being one-dimensional, and Bautista reveals an impressive comic timing to go along with entirely convincing action chops. His dead pan delivery is responsible for several of the biggest laughs in the film, no small achievement in a film that counts Pratt, Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly amongst it’s cast.

When the sequel rolls around I’d like to learn more about Gamora, because with the tragic and complicated back story the character has a lot of potential and the MCU would benefit from a strong, complex female character being an equal rather than a sidekick or straight forward love interest.

The good guys of the film are entertaining, well cast and fleshed out, but sadly the same cannot be said of the villains. Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister Nebula and Djimon Hounsou are all a little under-served by the script. Ronan and Nebula are fun enough but are given neither the motivations nor the characterization to be particularly memorable. Michael Rooker’s Yondu is more interesting, a character who raised Peter Quill and exists in a grey area between good and bad that is almost always more interesting than either extreme.

Guardians’ strengths lies in the relationship between the central five and there are several scenes that rival the Avengers Assemble chemistry that Joss Whedon achieved (cards on the table I’m a massive fan of Whedon after growing up on a steady diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so this is high praise for me).

Where the film stumbles a little is in the big action set pieces. There are great moments, especially the moment revolving around a prosthetic leg and an abrupt display of loyalty from Drax towards Gamora, but overall the ground feels well trodden already. A dogfight over a major city is well realised but familiar and the Marvel formula of a giant set piece aerial battle is starting to feel a little tired. I love a lot of spectacle in my summer blockbusters and Guardians delivers as well as any, but there is part of me that would love to see a Marvel film hand the final 30 minutes over to Gareth Evans so he could direct a small scale but mesmerising finale (see either of the Raid films to understand what I mean.) Small scale needn’t mean underwhelming and done right could be a perfect counterpoint to the C.G.I exhaustion that the Marvel films can occasionally trigger.

It’s a complaint about the genre as much as this specific film and I can’t help but wonder if Marvel wanted a traditionally cinematic ending as a compromise for the freedom the rest of the film enjoyed. I hope Guardians proves to be the success I believe it should be, because it’s an excellent film and because it will encourage the studio to keep being ambitious with their film and director choice. Much as I like Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, I’d much rather see another Guardians film than another Tony Stark tale, simply because the possibilities are so much more open and varied.

To finish the review with one of the many things I loved about this film, I adored the soundtrack. Framed by the concept of a mix-tape given to him by his mum before he left earth, the film runs to a backing track of classic 60s, 70s and 80s music that offers Guardians a distinct sound. Too few films end with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and as the trailer showed there is something joyous to space escapades being soundtracked by Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. I regularly end up getting the scores of films, but it’s a rare film that leaves me wanting the official soundtrack.

Guardians is a triumph, not perfect, but full of the sense of fun and wonder that defined the films it’s protagonist Peter Quill probably grew up watching in the 1980s. The ambition of introducing a whole universe of new characters in one film pays off handsomely and in my opinion the MCU will be stronger for the risk. In fact I enjoyed it so much I’ve already arranged to go see it again.

As a brief post script, someone I worked with at HMV a few years ago, Matt Ferguson was hired to produce a lot of the artwork for this film and it’s been great to see him get the praise and profile he deserves. A top artist and a good guy too. You can check out some of his work here - 

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