[REVIEW] Guardians of the Galaxy

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At this point, there are probably as many reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy as there are stars in said galaxy. If you’re interested in reading about how awesome the special effects were—and they were awesome—or how James Gunn laudably managed to catapult C-list (at best) comic book heroes to Hollywood superstars, please go read one of them. I’m not terribly interested in retreading the same generic territory. What you’ll find below is simply my personal reaction to the film: emotional impressions, fanboy nitpicking, and the odd idiosyncratic mental connection. Light spoilers are likely, but I figure most of you have either already seen the film, or couldn’t care less about it. In which case, why are you even bothering to read this?

                                                                    

I have a strange affinity for the 1980s. I’m barely old enough to remember living in the decade, but something about the bulky line of its fashion and, particularly, the primitive synth pervading its music always leaves me with a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. I suspect this unplaceable wistfulness—which I’m not sure is shared by anyone who actually lived through those years—is due in large measure to the movies I grew up watching. Films like ET, The Goonies, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids captured a thrilling sense of high stakes and real danger for their young protagonists that their modern counterparts rarely seem to replicate. The opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy (GotG), set in 1988, hooked me instantly not because it was especially dangerous but because it evoked the mood and atmosphere of that period’s films by wearing their influence on its sleeve. As a young Peter Quill stands by his dying mother’s bedside, I couldn’t help but recall a weepy Bastian Bux being told by his dying mother that we’re all part of The Neverending Story*. And the scene’s climax echoes every classic “boy-and-his-spaceship” story, from The Last Starfighter to Flight of the Navigator—with a dash of Close Encounters of the Third Kind thrown in for good measure. Even after it sadly leaves this 80s ambiance behind, GotG succeeds because it evokes its predecessors in all the best ways.

TheLastStarfighter

The Last Starfighter

That pedigree is nothing to shake a stick at, either. From The Avengers, through Firefly/Serenity, back to the original Star Wars trilogy, its inspirations are obvious, undeniable, and admirable. To be fair, GotG isn’t the most original story ever told. Its plot follows essentially the same arc established in Marvel Studios’ previous movies (with the notable exception of this year’s superb The Winter Soldier). But for all that it is Avengers-in-space, GotG never devolves into pastiche, into a tired parade of homages. Its mischievous spirit of fun and adventure, its clearly drawn and memorable heroes (I’ll touch on the villain later), and its vibrant settings drip with the movie magic only those few rare summer blockbusters manage to tap. I smiled and laughed more during this movie than during any other I’ve seen in years—not always just because it was clever or witty, but at the utter joy of the experience.

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GotG makes exemplary choices outside its core structure, as well. The oft-remarked upon soundtrack, for instance, is an absolute stroke of genius. Justified by the narrative and integrated seamlessly, the collection of 70s-era hits not only heightens the film’s unique flavor, but also serves to ground a story that doesn’t shy away from the spacey and fantastic. Staring into multicolored space from a balcony on the outskirts of a free-floating city built within the ancient, desiccated head of a gargantuan cosmic being isn’t nearly as hard to swallow when Elvin Bishop is playing in the background.

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All that said, the film isn’t flawless. There were no hiccups major enough to disrupt the sheer exuberance of the picture, but those that presented themselves to me I find worth noting. For starters, I doubt I’m alone in anticipating little acclaim for Dave Bautista’s turn as Drax. The character is straightforward enough and doesn’t necessarily require a subtle touch, but I repeatedly wondered if the professional wrestler understood the difference between deadpan delivery and simply not acting. My immersion was broken more than once by the obvious artifice of his performance. In contrast, Lee Pace’s take on the villain Ronan was delightfully malignant, his presence dominating the scenes in which he appears. Unfortunately, that character as written is a bit too simplistic and one-dimensional, following Marvel’s regrettable trend of underdeveloped baddies. (The exceptions in Loki and the Winter Soldier prove the rule.) Pace’s performance deserved more substance (and films) than he was given.

Drax

GotG also stretches the bounds of believability with its tongue-in-cheekiness a little farther than Marvel’s other projects. While such daring pays dividends in many cases—Starlord’s active distraction of Ronan during their final confrontation is a prime example of an idea that sounds awful but plays wonderfully (thanks, maybe entirely, to the charming Chris Pratt)—it occasionally crosses into contrived sitcom territory. As fun as Glenn Close and John C. Reilly are in their parts, I never for a second accepted their clownish characters as legitimate leaders of a galactic peacekeeping force. GotG settles a new frontier in Marvel Studios’ liberal use of humor, and I suspect we won’t see another of their films push it farther until they produce an outright comedy.

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Finally, as with any movie involving superhuman extraterrestrials, convenient space travel and near-omnipotent cosmic relics, a certain number of plot holes are to be expected. Most are forgivable as genre tropes, but one in particular sticks in my craw. If Rocket can so easily access the bridge of Ronan’s ship when his moment comes to save the day, why in the galaxy do the rest of his crew fight through the entire ship to get there? More to the point, why aren’t the Nova Corps simply launching their entire arsenal through that window?

Ronan

Its minor weaknesses notwithstanding, GotG is one of Marvel Studio’s strongest outings yet and more than worthy to stand as sister film to The Avengers. Even as a repeatedly professed Marvel zombie from way on back, I had extremely limited prior knowledge of the characters involved in this film. Consequently, it was the first of the studio’s movies I was able to approach virtually free of expectations. While I did find I missed the shortcut to connection and buy-in my familiarity with other Marvel characters has allowed me in the past, the journey with these new faces was as sweet as ever and perhaps even more satisfying.

That Celestial cameo didn’t hurt either.

                                                                    

* – Yes, I’m aware that specific scene is actually from the 1990 sequel. It’s close enough.

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