Monday, August 4, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

First, a confession; For a long time, I really didn't see how Guardians of the Galaxy could succeed. Sure, Marvel Studios are in a solid groove now, with a good reputation for delivering at the minimum solid, at at the best really excellent, blockbuster entertainment, but this just seemed like a step too far. Outside of comics fans - and not all of them at that - who has heard of StarLord and the like? This is the age of pre-loaded franchises, dammit, of playing it safe with established characters, not sailing off into a strange corner of the Cosmic Universe to play with a Talking Raccoon. So lets just say, for the record, that I was dead wrong.

The eponymous Guardians of the Galaxy are made up of five members - a wise-cracking slacker Human, a Green-skinned cyber-assassin, the aforementioned talking Raccoon, an overly erudite and deadpan space-wrestler and a walking tree. They live in outer space and get caught up in the hunt for a ball of Elemental Evil that can destroy the universe in the way that these things can, and have to fight pretty much everyone else they come across, and each other, until the Day Is Saved. In many ways, this is all very familiar, right down to many of the main plot beats (and some of the jokes). On the other hand, it also feels incredibly fresh, like something I've not seen up on the screen for a long time, and that is unabashed, shameless, Space Opera.

One of the most interesting things that Guardians does is largely just keep faith that it's audience will be able to keep up. Outside of the odd exposition dump and a short sequence right at the start, by and large the movie just zips around letting the story do its work. You don't really need to know much about the Nova Corps or the Kree Empire for instance, and the film doesn't slow itself down too much worrying about it. Even the Infinity Gem at the heart of the film is mostly shown, rather than told, in an explosive end to the sequence with The Collector. The same it true of the characters, who all come into the film fully formed, so which we are definitely "getting the band together" we don't have to sit through them learning how to play their respective instruments.

Best of all, it's all done in glorious, vibrant colours. This is an age where we paint "realism" into everything, toning down the colours and muddying up the camera lens, but Guardians is a dazzling throwback. If you're going to be a pulpy space adventure, it seems to say, then dammit I want laser blasts and giant floating heads and spaceships that lock together to make forcefields and frankly, stuff realism. We have a gun-toting Racoon whose best friend is a tree. And it's awesome.

So against this heightened background and heightened story, we get the actors playing up to the tone and matching it perfectly. Zoe Saldana gets stuck with the "straight man" role here, which is becoming the default for female characters these days, but the film smartly avoids any attempt at crowbarring in any sort of love story side plot. Chris Pratt looks like what StarLord is, a little boy living the dream of being a Space Pirate, and Dave Batista grows and glowers his way through Drax's dialogue to get a lot of laughs out of a role that could easily be overshadowed. The two CG creations, Rocket and Groot, are really fusion creations but the fusion is excellent, with the A-List voice work meshing well with the visual characterization they've been given. As you might expect from a movie focused on team-building, the villains are a little under-used but both Lee Pace and Karen Gillen chew the right amount of scenery and Gillen especially gets a good amount of expression out of her heavy face make-up.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not a film that takes itself too seriously. Its wants to be loved, its wants to be fun, and it wants to be cute. And you know what? It is.