Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Origin stories are a necessary evil in the world of franchise storytelling. Before you can dig into characters and narratives, exposition is a prerequisite. Therefore, the bigger the world, the more demanding it is to flesh out and explain it. Marvel Studios have been generating their own features and a television show for several years now, but nothing in their existing repertoire acts as a precedent for their latest adventure. While it’s an obligatory expansion of Marvel’s current universe and occasionally formulaic, Guardians of the Galaxy also stands out on its own terms, an engaging intergalactic comic book film with attitude.

The requisite character setup begins before there’s even an opening logo, as boy Peter Quill says goodbye to his cancer stricken mother when he’s suddenly snatched up by a galactic vessel. A couple of decades later, he has become space pirate “Star Lord” (Christ Pratt), an alias nobody actually recognizes, working for a larger outfit known as the Ravagers. While on his own solo mission, he tracks down a mysterious orb that happens to mean a great deal to a few nefarious individuals. Quill’s boss Yondu (Michael Rooker) issues a bounty on his head, but more dangerously, a genocidal alien named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is hunting the orb for his master, the titan Thanos (Josh Brolin). He sends assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after Quill, but both get mixed up with two bounty hunters, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified, English speaking raccoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), an ostensibly gentle, tree-like being. All four are taken into custody by a galactic police force called the Nova Corps and are shipped out to a prison. Each individual has something at stake with the orb, and they agree to escape the prison with a fifth companion, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). They make for an eccentric group of misfits, but their common cause will unite them against evil.

The broad strokes of Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t particularly interesting in that its basic arc takes the rouges from hating each other to working as a team, much like The Avengers. While that overall trajectory might be routine, the route the film takes is more off the beaten path. Their first encounters with each other result in lots of happy accidents getting them out of tight situations, but as a group they grow to claim responsibility for their mistakes. What pays off thrillingly is the casting diversity on display. Peter Quill’s personal character arc might feel tacked on, but Chris Pratt is a self aware presence, a fitting leader for the team. Zoe Saldana is no stranger to science fiction cinema, so she’s quite comfortable under her lime makeup. While Gamora’s backstory is relegated to just a few lines of dialogue, Saldana proves her to be more than just eye candy. Dave Bautista’s Drax is also above one-dimensionality, one whose deadpan solemnity ellicits a good share of the humor in the film. The clear MVPs of the film, however, come from the CGI compatriots of Rocket and Groot. Cooper’s snarky portrayal of the rascal raccoon never bores, hiding a tortured soul under the edgy exterior. He isn’t the brightest bulb of the bunch, but what Groot lacks in intelligence he makes up for with warmth and personality. He is likely Marvel’s biggest character risk to date, and Vin Diesel’s vocal performance delivers time and again. While the primary corps of characters are well drawn, the villain himself is disappointingly one dimensional. Lee Pace provides Ronan the Accuser with a malevolent vocal timbre, but otherwise, his motivations for war are thin at best. Further, as a mere pawn of Thanos, it’s abundantly clear that his involvement is ultimately inconsequential, solely meant to set up for future films.

In addition to its savvy casting, Guardians of the Galaxy is unquestionably Marvel’s most visually sumptuous offering to date. With an entire galaxy at his disposal, director James Gunn and the design team certainly do a strong job with showcasing the splendor of all the different locations. The most vibrant of these is a locale called Knowhere, a black market of sorts, where the eccentric Collector (a silver foxed Benicio Del Toro) resides. Where the film has a bit more difficulty is in the relentlessly cut action sequences. The set up for these isn’t necessarily poor, but there’s often so much going on in the frame that Gunn doesn’t do the best job guiding the eye from shot to shot. The climax also commences without much build up, so the only indication of stakes comes from some quick lines of dialogue. If these elements of Guardians of the Galaxy are more rote, then what really sets it apart from not only Marvel films but all comic book adaptations is its soundtrack. As selected from Quill’s mix tape, the swirl of funk, punk rock and everything 80’s, the song choices add an incredible dose of personality. Truly, that’s what elevates Guardians of Galaxy as the most engaging of Marvel’s Phase 2 films. This gang might not be as qualified to save the day like some of their A-list comic book cousins, but as a dysfunctional family, boy do they have swagger.

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~ by romancinema on August 2, 2014.

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