Tuesday, August 5, 2014
MOVIE REVIEW: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Makes A Han Solo Spin-Off Film Gloriously Unnecessary
While most people now associate Star Wars with a deeply mythological reverence, the original 1977 film isn't really focused on cultivating that kind of aura. Instead, it's a hodgepodge of Buck Rogers, samurai stories and pulp adventure. That spirit is mostly channeled through Han Solo, a rogue who isn't necessarily a hero, but has enough charm and good in him to become one by the film's end. That same charm and adventure has been resurrected in Guardians of the Galaxy, the first sci-fi adventure film to really capture the flavor of the original Star Wars film, while still carving out a new corner in a completely original and curiosity-empowering universe.
Where Han Solo was rough around the edges, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a wounded kid trying to make it by in a brutal galaxy. He tries to embolden himself by telling people his name is Star-Lord, but they just laugh it off. Quill is a great character, and a much sweeter rogue than Solo ever was. There's a sadness to Peter, but instead of that making him brooding or maudlin, it's covered up by layers of soft machismo and goofy humor. Chris Pratt does wonders here, and solidifies himself as a definite leading man. He has all the charm of Harrison Ford, but without the gruffness. Instead, he has this childish simplicity that speaks to both comic book fans and to the kid in all of us. Between Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Peter Quill, Quill is the one that seems like the most fun to hang out with.
And that's the key word for this film: fun. No other entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come close to the sheer fun of Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only is the humor often and genuinely funny, but the spirit of the film has a very "let's not take ourselves too seriously" vibe. I'm sure the framework for that comes from writer/director James Gunn, but it's heightened by all the main players to a level that is wonderfully infectious. I don't even think that The Avengers have as good of a rapport as the Guardians do. That's helped a lot by making each character as fleshed out and important as the next. Sorry, but Thor and Hawkeye combined don't have the kind of charisma that Groot and Rocket have on their own. Without delving too much into each specific performance, suffice to say that each Guardian is unique, funny, somewhat broken by their past and completely believable. It's a rare feat that an entire ensemble feels as justified and as likable as the lead.
While it does take the film some time to get the characterization underway for everyone, there's a whole bunch of action beats along the way to help do that. The film's action feels incredibly planned, and no sequence is too short or too long. Each action sequence also feels different from the one before it, so you don't feel like it's another fight with a bunch of faceless henchman, or another brawl in some alien hallway. When the climactic battle occurs, it's a great mixture of spaceship dog-fighting and knuckle-down brawling. It's a blast.
This is also the prettiest Marvel movie to look at. I'm sure having a cosmic setting helps, but so be it. This is a colorful picture, filled with vibrant frames that will make for great eventual screenshots. All the greens and purples really pop and give the film an appropriately other-world feel. My hats off to the production design, set design and digital artists for making this a galaxy I could have ogled for an additional two hours.
But, the movie does have one flaw that I can't get out my head: the villains. Villains seem to be one of Marvel's hardest elements to nail perfectly on film (save for Loki in The Avengers and the antagonists in Captain America: The Winter Soldier). In Guardians of the Galaxy, our main villain is a vengeful alien named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). As far as performance and design goes, he's good, but his motivation and presentation feel like they were copy and pasted from Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. He lacks any flourish and is easily the most serious part of the film. I'm sure that was intentional, in order to contrast with the light-hearted nature of the rest of the film (this light-hearted nature actually ends up being how the Guardians defeat Ronan, in one of the best good guy/bad guy face-offs in any blockbuster film), but it makes Ronan far less interesting than those around him. He answers to Thanos (the villain teased at the end of The Avengers), who is just there as more teaser fodder, but it is juicy teaser fodder. There is Nebula (Karen Gillan), Ronan's right hand assassin, and she is actually interesting due to her relation to one of the Guardians. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula are the adopted daughters of Thanos, with Gamora being the favorite child. There's some great sibling hatred in the character, with a few of her cruel lines landing spectacularly, but Gillan's performance doesn't get far past cold and pissy. Maybe it was hard for her to work under such extensive (and awesome) makeup, but it's a shame that this part of the movie just doesn't land as well as everything else.
Please don't take the above paragraph as a huge dig against the movie. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. It's certainly Marvel's biggest gamble since the promise presented in the post-credits tag of the first Iron Man, and it has paid off tremendously. The film is full of weirdness and joviality, meshing together to create the kind of four quadrant entertainment we need to get more often. There's a true emotional core to the film that resonates even greater than the humor (the origin of why Quill calls himself Star-Lord is one of the best payoffs I've seen this year), and cements all of the Guardians as fully formed characters that you want to see again. Now that they spent an entire movie introducing these characters, I think the sequel will be even better since the characters will be able to breathe a little. I hope there's a scene of all five Guardians at a table, playing some kind of game together. That's the kind of group this is, and they have won me over completely.
Marvel is getting bolder with each new film in their Cinematic Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy is such an oddball piece of popular entertainment, and I'm beyond happy that it works so well. I was beginning to cultivate some enthusiasm for the new wave of Star Wars films looming on the horizon, but Guardians of the Galaxy has already satisfied those feelings. We don't need Han Solo, Boba Fett, or Yoda spin-off movies. Guardians of the Galaxy just made those films completely irrelevant by presenting brand new and involving characters, a vast universe full of possibilities, and a sense of adventure and fun that no sci-fi film has been able to do since that first trip to a galaxy far, far away.