Space Oddity

My laptop’s screen broke. ’tis why I am late on this review (it also happened to break in the middle of an exile/vacation/visiting friends week, so I was not very inclined to find a way to meet my deadline). But, now I have reason… Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes out this week. And even though I haven’t bothered seeing it yet, any chance of diverging audiences to see something actually enjoyable and lovable rather than a Michael Bay produced movie about talking turtles who hit on Megan Fox seems necessary. So let’s go…

I know this sounds impractical. And so so dumb. But I so very much wish Guardians of the Galaxy was the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that came out. Prior to the Iron Man series and The Avengers and anything thing else that removes the illusion that its irreverent tone to its premise is not very fresh. I hate hate hate that it has to be an admittance to this film, because more than any other film in the very exhausted Marvel Cinematic Universe – regardless of how many Tony Snarks you throw that we love – the very absurd nature of this property plus the gung-ho (this time with a big budget) directing of splattermaster James Gunn – a directing choice that reminds me so much of Spider-Man‘s Deaditehead Sam Raimi – makes this movie the most deserving of a tone that the franchise has exploited.

This is the movie where not giving a fuck in the face of a situation where you probably should give a fuck fits most snugly. And we don’t get the joy of seeing it for the first time in this series, which is the tragedy.

Regardless, Guardians of the Galaxy is still helped out by the fact that its “fuck my self-importance” attitude is really legitimate as opposed to everything else – unlike most other films in the series, it doesn’t attempt to act as a stepping stone to an over-arcing super-film like The Avengers while also not holding its situation to a huge amount of real-world gravity like the Iron Man trilogy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In fact, in the spirit of an ejaculation joke Chris Pratt straight up delivers halfway through the movie (Disney wut?), the movie shoots its load early in terms of fan service… the characters that fans would really be enticed to witness in the movie will have already appeared and the movie can just go ahead and be the fun ride it actually is.

To shoot off the plot, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a raider in the far reaches of space who was abducted as a child on the night of his mother’s death, is in big trouble all around the galaxy. His latest find, a mysterious orb, has gotten him on the run from
– Genocidal space villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), contemporary to Avengers-teased galactic big bad Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), who for his intentions to destroy a neighboring planet.
– Quill’s previous employer/father figure Yondu (Michael Rooker, playing basically Merle Dixon in space, but damn he plays that note so well), who has been betrayed by Quill’s absconding of the artifact.
– Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Thanos’ adopted daughter and ally to Ronan, who intends to betray both villains.
– and bounty hunters Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (motion-captured and voiced by Vin Diesel), who for one reason or another need to cash in on Quill’s existence.
This goose chase leads Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot to become imprisoned quickly enough, along with vengeful and dense strongman Drax the Destroyer (Dave Baustista), before the five decide to ally together to escape the prison and decide on their next move with the orb, the galaxy hot on their trail.

I mean, that’s just trying to sum it up in detail – It is generally just a story of bandits becoming heroes in the face of universal destruction.

Another source of its fun besides its rebelliousness to universal puzzle piece playing is how the ensemble cast so very much works out – even in all of them being drawn extremely broadly as characters. It pretty much lends itself to the fact, as much as the film comes off as the lost Star Wars episode or Disney/Marvel’s Firefly, it is really Avengers in space. Characters are specifically just put into a situation just for our expectations of how they would react with one another. Guardian‘s dealing of a motley crew and its distinction of each member from one another really gives the otherwise cheesy teamwork/friendship moral which is dropped every single second of the film a better gravitas and makes it less annoying. Unlike The Avengers though, while had its million prequels to set-up its characters and the audience attachment to them, Guardians of the Galaxy has to do its own heavy lifting in this aspect and it delivers by making their characters as dully caricatured as I mentioned and then, over the course of the actual premise, giving them their true dimension.

US Culture at least (can’t say much for the world) is in the middle of a Chris Pratt moment – what with his standing out in Parks & Recreation and having been cast in the upcoming Jurassic World – and I have to say after the one-two punch of 2014 with this film and The Lego Movie, I am already sucked in. His smug Han Solo-lite is extremely familiar, making him an immediately almost-unfairly likable character. Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper get the stand-out characters, Vin Diesel being no slouch in movement and providing a visual base for Groot’s humorous facial expressions (easily the funniest moment in the whole movie involves Groot’s follow-up to having straight-up massacred an entire platoon of Ronan’s men in brutal fashion) while Cooper only provides voice to the very tensed-up creature that is Rocket Raccoon, but still gets to show off the anger and rage that he is known to harbor for himself – Rocket actually gets a surprising amount of poignancy as a character. It will be surprising if a best Visual Effects nomination is not in consideration solely for the design of Rocket and Groot.

But the most improved actor golden sticker goes to Bautista. Wrestlers being cast as actors is never an good move in my eye (my love for The Rock notwithstanding, he is a fantastic beast to watch on the screen but a good actor – I have yet to see anything beyond Pain & Gain to prove it). But Batista surprised me with both his awareness of emotional development in Drax and his one-track rage and comedic timing with Drax’s literal approach to every line of dialogue delivered to him. I had read that he took acting lessons, of his own volition, after having discovered he won the role. It really shows.

The weaker links of the ensemble is in fact the villains side of the alignment and not outright of their acting. Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace are all perfectly game in their devious moments as Nebula, Gamora, Korath and Ronan respectively. Pace especially surprises me; I’m not used to my favorite pie-maker showing such a dark side. And the lack of development for their respective characters does more good than harm on the side of the literally slaved drones that are Nebula and Korath – Ronan, I only need to know he hates Thanos and Xandar. And Gamora gets as much shade in her as the rest of the Guardians do.

It’s just that those characters work best in this film as foils to the comedic tendencies of Quill, Rocket, Groot and Drax. If they get moments to themselves, like Ronan and Gamora especially do, and are expected to carry a scene on their own, the very dark basis of the characters seems to belong to a different movie. It slows down the momentum overall and just doesn’t fit in with the brightly colored universe and characters. It’s like if your episode of Star Trek got intercut with something from Angel. Hopefully, by the obviously gonna happen sequel, Gamora will find her tone to fit the frequency alongside her new team of rapscallions.

Speaking of the colored universe, Gunn’s direction of production designer Charles Wood and cinematographer Ben Davis proves how much more disciplined and talented he has become as a filmmaker over the years. This holy trinity provided just enough touch of Lucas to keep us knowing exactly what the hell Gunn was thinking, but also separated enough from that trilogy to make Guardians of the Galaxy stand-out on its own. This comic book sensibility along with its blatant independence quickly pushed it to my number one spot in the Marvel films thus far and I loved every step of its junk food visual parade, with a rhythm provided by the wonderful wonderful R&B collection Quill plays in memory of his mother (I have now taken to adding “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to my midnight stroll mix). It’s such a cultural clash made modern that reminisces of Her that I can’t help but find it fully tasteful.

I mean there’s only so many ways I can explain how pleasant the film has become that I am tempted with just throwing R&B and space opera and graphic novels into this word salad of a review and calling it a day, so I guess I might as well – James Gunn humor really incites more laughs out of me than Whedon humor, honestly, and this has been his most focused and proving piece of work so far. This genre play that Marvel has taken itself to has, for the most part, given us some really special films as the Espionage-minded Iron Man 3 and the paranoia-government-thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier (as much as I swear to Odin that movie proves nobody involved has seen the 70s Redford works, it still amused me) and now Guardians of the Galaxy has raised the bar and made me much more interested in the work of a film company that had been slowly losing my attention.

Bring it back, Marvel.

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