Monday, August 4, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn. 2014.


Guardians of the Galaxy has the gusto of Star Wars, the wit of Firefly, and the satirical eye of Hitchhiker's Guide. It doesn't boast these attributes to the same degree of its predecessors, nor does it blaze any new paths, but Guardians pulls off the pastiche in a big, fun way, wrapped up in a neat Marvel bow.

It's not necessary to talk about another sci-fi plot involving galactic war, doomsday weapons, and a motley crew of rebels, but our characters have a little depth worth noting. After the death of his mother, Peter Quill (Chris Platt) was abducted by aliens into a life of crime and roguish escapades. Now he's sort of an intergalactic Indiana Jones, jet-setting from world-to-world and picking up artifacts for sale to the highest bidder. We think he's a cocky cad, trying to get himself known as Star Lord, until we we learn that his would-be nickname has a tender spot in his past.

Two of the incipient guardians are out for revenge against the big baddie, Ronan, who is out to destroy quite a few worlds. Of the two, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is an assassin with some trust issues to work out, and Drax (Dave Bautista) needs to see beyond the rage of avenging his family. The remaining characters also make a pair, with Vin Diesel's woody Groot, a tree-like humanoid with a three word vocabulary, supplying the loyal muscle to Rocket, a talking raccoon. A very talkative raccoon, at that. Rocket's the most interesting character, though, harboring rage and insecurity on account of his engineered existence as a sentient raccoon.

The contrast of these characters–who learn to see beyond themselves and save the world and each other, if you couldn't guess–is the nexus of the movie's plot and entertainment. Often that entertainment comes from the witty banter from Peter and Rocket. In one scene, topping off a short chase with a tasty cherry of a laugh, Peter hops into his ship and after bouncing around, flits off. When his last squeeze pops out of the hold after the commotion he replies, "I honestly forgot you were here." Platt deserves credit for pulling off these lines with a hotshot's aplomb.

The best humor in Guardians, though, is that which plays on the fact that aliens don't know human history and customs. Take Peter's explanation to Gamora about the joy of dancing, an Earth legend about a young man who used his passion for dance to bring a town to life, a legend called Footloose. This laugh is another which spices up and tops off an otherwise plain scene in which the hero tries to woo the female lead. In another dance-related cultural confusion, Peter challenges an alien to... a dance off, much to the confusion of the non-Terran. The alien's befuddled look gets a laugh because we realize that dancing is rather odd when you think about it. Is it aggressive, a secret ruse, or hypnotic power? Should the alien be afraid of the shimmying Star Lord?

In another scene, the hopelessly literal Drax is engaged in debate with Rocket, who explains that the metaphor will go right over his head, to which Drax replies with steadfast deadpan, "Nothing goes over my head." Sometimes the laughs are satirical though, as when the team commits to saving the galaxy. In the time honored cliche, each character stands up and after a little speech, makes his pledge. When Rocket follows suit, he quips, "Fine. I'm standing. We're all standing in a circle like jackasses. Great." There is room for sight gags, too, though. Take the scene where, as Rocket painstakingly lays out the plan which will culminate in the alarm-sounding removal of the device located in the background of the scene, the dimwitted Groot is back there ripping out the device.

There is even humor in the soundtrack, which is a hodgepodge of familiar Terran tunes which have no association or relationship to science fiction or action. The contrast of seeing someone explore an alien cave not to dreadful terror-inducing chords but to Hooked On a Feeling is itself novel and amusing. The novelty isn't a gimmick, though, for the running theme through Peter's arc is coming to terms with his last Earthbound memory, the death of his mother, who always gave him cassette mix-tapes. The music, which Peter plays on an aging Walkman to which he is very attached, is a way for a lonely man to connect to his past and tune out his surroundings. When he's at last ready to open a final gift from his mother, one last cassette tape, we realize he's ready to acknowledge the past as finished and to move on.

Yes, the plot is familiar and the supporting characters are rather skimpily developed, but Guardians keeps its lean parts moving quickly and without confusion. While the writers and producers should be commended for their continuity among the now ten films making up the Marvel Universe, I had a little trouble keeping some of the aliens and their planets straight. Maybe I'm getting old, but I could have used a few reminders. Guardians keeps the action pretty limited too, which after Transformers 4 is a huge relief. In fact Guardians is less an action or superhero movie than a comedy, an entertaining one which keeps the jokes coming laugh after laugh.

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