In the interest of being transparent I should tell you know that I am quite a fan of the works of James Gunn. Slither is a cult horror classic. Super was my favourite film of 2011 by some margin. I own a signed copy of the screenplay for that film, in fact. His script for the Dawn of the Dead remake helped craft what is probably one of the best examples of a horror remake in recent years. Hell, I even quite liked what he did with Scooby Doo. Some of it anyway. When I saw that he was signed on to direct guardians of the Galaxy I may have cheered a little. So yeah, I may be a bit bias here. That said, the 3 friends I watched the film with and almost all the response online agrees with me on the following opinion: Guardians of the Galaxy may be the best Marvel film so far. Click the link below for my full review.
Guardians of the Galaxy represents something a little bit rare these days. A studio taking a risk. A huge risk. The comic series and characters upon which this film is based are certainly nowhere near the general public level of appreciation. Well, at least it wasn’t a couple of days ago. Now, everyone will know the name Star Lord. The film blows open the scale of the Marvel cinematic universe to the point where it actually is a universe now. Well, a corner of the galaxy. Even picking James Gunn to direct could have been seeing as a risk as he’s untested on this scale of film. Trusting younger directors seems to have been a trend this year with the choices made for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Godzilla both coming from relative unknowns too. So we have scope, budget, lack of character awareness and a director being given one hell of a chance. Studios really hate risk. Marvel took a chance and they knocked it out the park, to use an American colloquialism.
The plot follows Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human who was abducted and taken into space as a child right after his mother died, as he finds his path crossing with one of the most dangerous men in the galaxy, Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace). Their paths become entwined when Quill steals a strange metal orb holding something of exceptional importance to Ronan, and more importantly, his employer, the actual most dangerous man in the galaxy Thanos (Josh Brolin). One of Thanos’ daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), is sent to capture Peter. Their paths soon cross with Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who is totally not a raccoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), who totally is a living tree. The four are sent to a maximum security space prison where they encounter Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has serious issues with Ronan himself. The group mount and escape, secure the orb and set about finding a buyer for the artefact. When they discover exactly what this orb is the stakes are raised to a galactic level as they find themselves in a position where to allow it to fall into the wrong hands, or anyone’s hands for that matter, could well mean the end of life… like… everywhere.
The film essentially sets the team on their own redemption arcs, standard as they may be, in a setting that is far from standard. The film also places plenty of trust in its audience to not require a avatar with which to experience the film through. Peter may be the one human character but he’s very familiar with the world in which he inhabits. There’s no fish out of water aspect, which would have been so easy to have done with a tweaked origin. Instead Gunn shows confidence enough in his script that you will emotionally connect to the characters very quickly. He nails this. It is refreshing to see an ensemble plot where each character has actual dimension and clear goals. No-one is there just to pad out the numbers. Take one member of the Guardians away from this plot and you would have a lesser film. That is exactly how any film should be. Remember how that one other guy from GI Joe Retaliation was there and was so pointless that I can’t even remember his name? Exactly. He was pointless and the film would have been the same without him. Lose Drax and a number of elements would have been made weaker in an instant.
A large amount of the ease of identification with the core cast comes down to the fact that they are all giving their performance everything they have. Each actor gets a chance to work with their character’s internal conflicts and to convey a range of emotion. Think about most summer movies and how most characters will stick to one mood for the whole film, maybe shouting a couple of times. That’s not what Guardians of the Galaxy does. James Gunn and the cast make you care, and I mean really care, that Guardians will not just complete their task but grow and learn as they go. Even Groot, who can only say the word “I” and “am” and “Groot” in that order, get his moments to shine. It’s kind of amazing what Vin Diesel manages to convey with just those 3 words. It’s Rocket that will really take you by surprise though. He is so much more than just a loud mouthed violent rodent. He will hit you in the feels at least once guaranteed.
But it’s not all about characters being sad and self destructive and stuff. The film is also about the funny. In my review of The Avengers I noted that the film came dangerously close to being more of a comedy than an action film. Guardians of the Galaxy straddles that same line but I’d argue that the comedy is much more in keeping with the outlandish tone of the film’s setting. There’s a joke about Drax not getting metaphors, they go right over his head, that gave me one of the strongest belly laughs I’ve had in a cinema in a very long time. Maybe since the South Park movie. The comedy is sharp, actually features constructed jokes, which is worryingly rare these days, and even manage to fit in a number of out dated pop culture references that serve to underline how much of a person removed from his home world Peter Quill is.
Added to this is the music. Peter Quill left Earth with only a few belongings. Amongst them was his Sony Walkman, a mixtape made by his mother and a present she had given him to open after her death. The mixtape represents the one connection to home Peter has an each song on it is used to help accompany the film’s plot in various ways. Each song plays into a moment of action or character development adding a layer of thematic resonance with it’s every use. This doesn’t feel like a set of songs picked out by a studio because they have a deal with a record label to fulfil. Each song has been chosen specifically for the film and worked into the script with care.
Effects work is of a consistently high standard, especially when it comes to creating alien worlds. The scope of the locations has been made suitably grand via digital background designs that lend a scale to the worlds that you really don’t get in these kinds of space operas these days. The sets themselves and intricately detailed and huge on their own so the fact they’re expanded so widely with the help of digital effects shows that Gunn wanted this film to feel huge. And these are actual sets too. I don’t think, barring effects shots, there was a single wholly digital set. If there was it looked incredible. There is a moment where some people are fleeing across London’s Millennium bridge which jarred me a little, what with it being a landmark I’ve crossed many times, but otherwise everything is designed to feel like genuine alien worlds. There’s maybe a little too march dark and dank industrial themes going on but it’s really just a tiny nitpick.
Make-up work also deserves some praise. There’s really very few characters that are not covered in some sort of make-up or prosthetics. There’s really only Peter, the Nova Corps (which includes Glenn Close, John C Reilly and Peter Serafinowcz) and a random Lloyd Kaufman appearance that escapes any sort of visual centric make-up. Former Dr Who assistant Karen Gillan has some very cool two-tone blue make-up coupled with some small prosthetics to sell her alien cyborg look as Nebula. Whilst some liberties have been taken with the looks, and the characterisation, the characters all have strong unique looks and feel like complete individuals. They even managed to make Dave Bautista look more freakish in size than he does in real life by giving him the full, head to toe, alien skin look. There’s tiny details in the texture of the skin of the various main cast of characters that helps them all gain their own unique looks.
I’m really unsure if I can praise this film enough. I started this review saying that Guardians of the Galaxy may be the best Marvel film so far. I feel Like I should watch Winter Soldier again to determine that for certain, but, there’s something incredibly complete about this film’s vision, tone and personality that makes it feel like the first of the Marvel films to truly have an identity of its own. Avengers did feel like a Whedon film but it felt like a Marvel film in the shell of a Whedon film. This feels like a Guardians of the Galaxy film. As in this film defines this film’s style to such a degree that whenever someone tries to make a space opera film with an ensemble cast from now on they’ll compare it to this. I can’t think of any films that would fit that bill coming up in the near future… I’m sure there’s one or three. Maybe 6 apparently.
Any issues I could take with the film are minor, if not just nit-picks. I’d say it’s the most fun I’ve had watching a film at the cinema this year and really has done a fine job of washing the horror that was Transformers 4 right out of my mind. Man, this summer has been very good. Captain America 2, Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and now this have all managed to rise above the status quo we’ve endured the last few years. I kind of wish Guardians was the last of the summer blockbusters to come, this would have been an amazing cap on the whole season. James Gunn has managed to take a bunch of rogue assholes and rounded them together, took a chance, slapped them into shape and given us a film treat that reminds you of the spectacle film can present whilst also making time for the heart. Go see this. It deserves any and all success it is almost guaranteed to receive.