Based on a relatively obscure crew of characters in the Marvel comic book universe and made for a reputed budget of US$170m, Guardians of the Galaxy qualifies as a brave bet in today’s world of blockbuster film-making. It’s an exuberant B-movie with A-scale production values; a goofy cosmic adventure that disarms cynicism through wisecracking and enthusiasm.
It’s the film that the makers of all those space operas that followed Stars Wars 30-35 years ago — The Last Starfighter, Krull, Ice Pirates, Flash Gordon, and so on — were trying to make without the necessary budget and technology. There are flickers of more contemporary influences – Firefly is one — but Guardians’ heart really belongs to the early to mid-1980s.
Guardians is about a band of misfits and criminals who step up to save the galaxy when the zealot Ronan (Lee Pace) tries to get his hands on a destructive orb — a McGuffin which hero Peter Quill aka Starlord says has “a shiny suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon vibe”. An adventure that whips between multiple planets and involves dozens of minor characters from the Marvel canon ensues.
Starlord (Chris Pratt) — an earthling abducted and raised by space pirates after his mother’s death in 1988 — is the accidental leader. The rest of the crew is made up of enigmatic assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, painted green here rather than CGI’d blue as she was in Avatar); the hulking, tattooed Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista); gun-toting racoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper); and tree-like humanoid Groot (voice of Vin Diesel).
Warm performances by these actors, supported by great work from the special effects and makeup teams, help to elevate Guardians above its pedestrian story. Pratt was presumably hired by the notoriously tight-fisted Marvel because he was cheaper than other some of the actors tipped for the part.
But he has enough jaunty charisma to make his Starlord into a likeable scoundrel in the mould of Malcolm Reynolds and Han Solo. Starlord is a good excuse to inject plenty of 1980s nostalgia into interplanetary settings; he weaves parables from the plot of Footloose in a running joke that is perhaps a bit too cute and carries artefacts like troll dolls in his backpack. His most treasured possession is a Walkman, which he used to play mix-tapes of 1970s pop music his mother made for him.
Saldana, meanwhile, is a tough and capable Princess Leia stand-in, while the endearingly loyal Groot is the film’s answer to Chewbecca. The smart-mouthed, mischievous Rocket works better on screen than a raccoon with a rocket launcher ought to: there’s nothing Loony Tunes about this feral, bristly creature with an attitude. Former wrestler Bautista, under his make-up, projects a sad soulfulness into Drax.
Guardians is directed by James Gunn, who made the off-kilter superhero satire Super and the hilariously irreverent horror flick Slither. (He also wrote the Scooby-Doo film, but let’s not hold that against him.) Marvel house style still rules in this film, but it also has a few of Gunn’s distinctive touches in its mildly rude, gently subversive sense of humour.
Gunn keeps the film moving along nicely, adeptly balancing its comic, action and dramatic elements. Though he makes fun of genre tropes — puncturing serious scenes with Rocket’s quips, having Gamora stifle a yawn when the heroes do the slow-motion walk heroes always do in ensemble action films — Gunn’s treatment of his material is also sincere.
His action scenes are well orchestrated, but he also understands that the Mos Eisley cantina scene in Star Wars is as much a part of what it makes it great as the light sabre battles or the destruction of the Death Star. There are plenty of space battles and shootouts, but there’s also some lovingly detailed world building.
If there’s a criticism of the film, it is that Marvel productions are starting to feel a little predictable. The Marvel template has accommodated everything from the 1980s buddy cop vibes of Iron Man 3 to the 1970s paranoia thriller feel of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the story beats are starting to feel overly familiar.
One element disappointing in most recent Marvel films is that the stakes seldom feel high, even when the heroes are battling supposedly powerful cosmic beings and even when the destruction is on a planetary scale. Guardians, too, is guilty of this, especially given its frequent use of narrative get-of-jail-free cards to save its heroes.
Though I think Guardians of the Galaxy is a bit overpraised — Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are both better among this Hollywood summer’s crop of blockbusters — I also understand why it’s so popular. It has heart, it’s consistently funny and it’s eager to please. Given the contempt with which films like the crass Transformers: Age of Extinction treat the audience, it’s a pleasure to see a big film that has some soul beneath its special effects. — © 2014 NewsCentral Media