Friday, August 15, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Forgettable fun. 

I’ve said before that I don’t really care for action movies. I should probably rephrase. I don’t care for movies that feature big action scenes unless backed by a good story, compelling characters, and believable dialogue. I’ve seen some great action movies this summer (X-Men: Days of Future Past; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and I’ve seen some bad ones (Godzilla; Transformers: Age of Extinction). Guardians of the Galaxy falls somewhere in between.

It’s 1988 and young Peter Quill’s mother has just died. Filled with grief, he races out of the hospital and, for reasons unknown, is suddenly abducted and taken to space. Now, twenty-six years later, Quill is a space-roving bounty hunter of sorts, finding artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder. On one such quest, Quill comes across a mysterious orb that is highly sought after by the villainous Ronan, who is determined to use the orb’s power to destroy the universe. After a haphazard series of events, Quill ends up in prison and forms a bond with four other prisoners. There’s the assassin Gamora, seeking to avenge her parent’s death, the anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket and his talking, tree-creature sidekick Groot, and the violent and volatile Drax, determined to make the killer of his wife and daughter pay. These characters each have their own motivations but they all share the same goals: find Ronan, get the orb, save the galaxy.

When setting up a science fiction movie, it is necessary to set up rules: the way the universe runs, the creatures that inhabit it, the sci-fi “laws” of what is possible and what isn’t. But Guardians doesn’t bother with the details, instead thrusting the audience into a new world with no explanation, no rules, and the feeling that anything is possible. That might sound fun, but it presents a huge problem cinematically. In a world without boundaries, it’s near-impossible to portray any real danger or conflict. Sure, the villainous Ronan is powerful, but that’s okay! Our not-so-super-heroes can actually do anything! This problem is most apparent in the action scenes. Because anything can happen in this universe, it’s hard to feel that the characters are ever truly in peril. As a result, giant action scenes feel boring and arbitrary, necessary only to propel a fairly weak plot.

The visuals, however, are pretty fantastic. Alien character design is unique, space technology is impressive, and the special effects are awesome. An arrow-like weapon that dispatched an entire horde of enemies in seconds induced “wow's.” The fleet of Nova Corps airships that bond together to create an impenetrable wall is extremely impressive.

In addition to its stunning visuals, the film makes you fall in love with its characters. Chris Pratt, known for his comedic character-acting easily slips into his first leading-man role, giving a truly star-making performance as the kind-hearted, wisecracking Quill. Bradley Cooper’s personality is on full display in the voice of the hilariously irreverent Rocket Raccoon. WWE wrestler Dave Batista plays the straight man incredibly well, his character incapable of understanding metaphors. “Nothing goes over my head,” he growls. “My reflexes are too fast.”

But while you care about the characters, their development lacks severely. One moment the bunch is at odds, the next, they are partners. Another moment they all hate each other, the next, they are an unstoppable team of super friends. Getting from here to there is clearly of no concern to the filmmakers, who figure you’ll be so caught up in the pure comedic joy and fun, you won’t stop to notice that everything is very rushed. They’re mostly right.

Perhaps the film’s main highlight is its soundtrack. It features several classic hits from the 70’s and 80’s, superbly setting the film’s overall tone. It’s light, it’s fun, and it never takes itself too seriously. From “Hooked on a Feeling” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I was tapping my toes throughout the film.

I was surprised by the amount of ribald content in this “family-friendly” Disney movie. Characters parade around in skimpy outfits, make obscene gestures towards one another, and use a fair amount of profanity, including lots of sexual slang and euphemisms. It’s definitely the edgiest of the Marvel superhero films to date.

At one point, Drax asks Quill what happens next. Quill's response is an unintentional summary of the film: "Something bad. Something good. A little bit of both." Guardians doesn’t raise any important life questions or beg any contemplation or thought. But you won’t care: it’s ridiculously entertaining to watch. Although you’ll probably forget about it moments after leaving the theater.

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