Saturday, 2 August 2014

Review of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest output from the Marvel studios factory of superhero movies, opens with an unusually harrowing scene that took me entirely by surprise and reduced me to tears almost immediately. Needless to say, it was unexpected. We join Peter Quill in a hospital, aged roughly ten years old. He's listening to his "Awesome Mix vol.1", a mixtape we later learn was composed for him by his mother. He's invited in to speak to his mother, who is reaching out for him in her final moments. She holds out her hand; he doesn't take it. She passes on, and he immediately runs outside and is taken into space by a giant ship of some description.

These scenes are arguably corny, yet something about their immediacy and feeling hooked me. I cannot hide my predilection for scenes involving mothers and sons in movies, which is rooted entirely in personal reasons that I will not disclose in this review. Nevertheless, even though this level of emotional intensity isn't maintained in any way (how could it be? The film would be ruinous, to me at least) these early scenes set the tone well for Guardians of the Galaxy, and reveal the cards its going to play; earnestness, wonder, confusion, and an endearing imperfection. It's clear from the outset that this is a film with a big, beating, gooey heart, right down to the soundtrack, which includes Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", and The Jackson 5's "ABC". If you can embrace those songs, you'll also probably have a good time embracing this film. By the same token, cynics will probably have a hard time.

We cut forward some years to Quill all grown up, traversing planets in his custom spaceship and going by the moniker of "Star-Lord". He is now played by Chris Pratt, and he seems to embody that same kind of spirit the film shares. When he dances around an unknown planet, I found myself smiling; this is a film with a genuine sense of awe at the outer-space universe, aliens, creatures and planets it has created.

As an actor, Pratt has that same twinkly-eyed quality found in another actor I greatly admire, Ethan Hawke, and as a presence I warmed to him immediately. He carries the movie nearly effortlessly, hitting the various notes of  arrogance, resentment, sadness, and doe-eyed wonder with ease. He's the kind of not-quite antihero who has existed in the movies since they began. When we meet him, he is in the pursuit of an orb of unspecified origin and cause, and a number of contrivances surrounding him and this orb land him in prison with a green alien called "Gamora" (Zoe Saldana), a blue, superpowered, vengeful tank of rage called "Drax", and a raccoon called "Rocket" (Bradley Cooper) and his personal companion, a tree called "Groot" (Vin Diesel).

This ragtag group of individuals, each with their own interests and backstories, ultimately band together to stop a baddy called "Ronan" (Lee Pace) who broke into the orb, which contains an "infinity stone", which we gather can destroy worlds, and that's certainly Ronan's intention.

There's a lot of plot in this movie, and where the film stops short of being one of the landmark action/sci-fi films of the decade is that in the early scenes it gets terribly bogged down. Characters go to places and say things and do things, and I confess to being lost for the first half hour or so. There was a lot of talk of "treaties" and we were introduced to too many new planets and people too quickly that, simply, it took me a little while to catch up.

But I can't dwell on negatives too long; this is a film that relies on interplay, banter, and goodwill. It's exciting, accessible, and intriguing. It's beautiful in its own way and has the pre-requisite nods to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and it's nirvana for anyone familiar with the music and movies of the late 70's and early 80's. It feels fully conceived, like every alien and being has been planned out.

But, mainly, in rooting us in the core five characters we actually have something to care about. Drax is seeking revenge after his wife and child were killed, and we want him to find vengeance. Gamora is a baddy turned good, and her arc feels real. And then there's the duo of Rocket and Groot. Groot may be my favourite CGI incarnation, well, ever. He is quite literally a talking tree, and the only words he knows are "I Am Groot", yet his devotion to Rocket (left unexplained in origin) is simply adorable. His face is genuinely expressive, and I never noticed the fact that he was a special effect. Rocket, too, is a superb character, his voice-work by Bradley Cooper, conveying a character who is brash on the surface but has deep insecurities and a poignant backstory (he's the product of experimentation).

Gunn's direction is splendid, belying his indie roots and leaving an indelible personal mark on the whole thing. Tyler Bates' score is phenomenal. Ben Davis' cinematography is unique and out of the ordinary, a refreshing relief from the usual clean-cut composition we see. There were times when I felt the film could have done with a few minutes extra to clarify some bits and pieces, and as I've said the plot could do some work, but that doesn't so much feel like the fault of Gunn and Nicole Perlman's screenplay as how it came to be in the editing suite.

It's all in all a superb piece of entertainment. I am stopping short of calling it a masterpiece, but I have a feeling time will be kind to this one. After an opening of fits and spurts, it settles into an exciting, memorable and weird ride that is the perfect antithesis to the dark that has crept into modern superhero films. It's fun, by God, and sometimes that's all I want from a film, or at the very least a film like this.

No comments:

Post a Comment