Guardians of the Galaxy (United States, 2014)

July 30, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Guardians of the Galaxy Poster

Guardians of the Galaxy represents Marvel's great experiment: a major motion picture based on a comic book series not featuring any "household name" superheroes. It takes place in outer space, a setting where few action/adventure movies have found traction in recent years. Although it remains to be seen whether this will represent a shrewd movie on the part of Marvel or a significant misstep, the resultant production is engaging for the most part and highly reminiscent of the wave of post-Star Wars space operas that emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The vibe, if not the specifics, is highly reminiscent of The Last Starfighter, Battlestar Galactica, Battle Beyond the Stars, and others. The fact that the movie's "present" is defined as being 1988 and the soundtrack is peppered with '70s tunes cements the retro feeling.

The action takes place not that long ago but definitely far away, although the opening scenes are on Earth. Peter Quill (played by Wyatt Olef as a child and Chris Pratt as an adult) is abducted by aliens shortly after his mother dies of cancer. He grows up as part of a band of intergalactic thieves and smugglers and the first time we meet him as a man (with the code name of "Star Lord"), he's stealing an orb. It turns out that seemingly everyone wants the orb: terrorist Ronan (Lee Pace), who wants to use it to obliterate his enemies, the Xandarans; Thanos (Josh Brolin), the warlord who can use it to attain mastery over the universe; The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who covets all rare and powerful items; and many lesser entities who plan to sell it. After being arrested and imprisoned (and having the orb taken away from him), Quill is forced into an uneasy alliance with several of his fellow inmates: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an "adopted daughter" of Thanos; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a literal minded mountain of a man who seeks revenge against Ronan; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon with a bad temper and a love of guns; and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), an Ent-like creature who speaks only one line: "I am Groot." The five remain united after their prison break in order to retrieve the orb and keep it away from Ronan.

The basic narrative of Guardians of the Galaxy is the kind of light popcorn fare that comic books (and their spin-off products) can get away with. The plot is riddled with seeming inconsistencies (although I'm sure die-hard fans can explain all the limitations constraining the supposedly all-powerful orb) and a lot of threads are left dangling (presumably for exploration in the already-greenlit sequel). However, the characters develop a nice rapport, the dialogue crackles with wit, and the '70s songs add an element of freshness to the proceedings. The anticlimactic resolution, which relies in part on an unfortunate instance of corny physical humor, is a bit of a letdown but that's often the case with superhero movies, where the journey is more entertaining than the destination.

Visually, the movie overdoses on CGI - it looks a lot like the Star Wars prequels (although director James Gunn has indicated he mixed in so-called practical effects). The two non-humanoid members of the team were created entirely by computer. Groot, the walking tree-like entity whose voice is provided by Vin Diesel, is a triumph of artistry. A similar comment can be made about Rocket, who looks almost like a raccoon… but not quite. The 3-D falls into the "neutral" range of the spectrum in that it neither enhances nor detracts from the overall experience.

With the exception of Lee Pace, whose Ronan isn't as nasty as one might hope for a big, bad villain, the cast is well-chosen. Chris Pratt brings a mix of Han Solo-inspired bravado and Luke Skywalker-influenced heroism to his part. Zoe Saldana, adding green skin to her resume (after having been blue-skinned in Avatar), is effectively tough and conflicted as Gamora and her chemistry with Pratt generates the right amount of heat. Dave Bautista's Drax, who comes across like a semi-eloquent Hulk, provides some comic relief without going over-the-top. Actors in secondary roles include Michael Rooker as the bandit lord Yondu (whose weaponry is very cool); Karen Gillan as Nebula, Ronan's hench(wo)man; and Glenn Close as the leader of Xandar's military. Josh Brolin's interpretation of Thanos makes us wish that he, instead of Ronan, had been the main villain.

Despite a variety of unresolved narrative elements, Guardians of the Galaxy is sufficiently self-contained to work as a stand-alone film even though the goal is to make this the starting point for a long-running franchise. Guardians of the Galaxy is immersed in a characteristic evident in The Avengers--related movies (but not found in most other major comic book films): irreverence. By not taking anything too seriously, it allows cheesy plot elements to work where they might fail in another context. Guardians of the Galaxy is solid summer fun - not the mammoth epic we have come to expect from each new Marvel release, but a welcome entry into a moribund movie season.

Guardians of the Galaxy (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2014-08-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1