Saturday, August 02, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy / ***½ (PG-13)

Peter Quill/Starlord: Chris Pratt
Gamora: Zoe Saldana
Drax the Destroyer: Dave Bautista
Ronan the Accuser: Lee Pace
Yondu Udonta: Michael Rooker
Nebula: Karen Gillan
Korath: Djimon Hounsou
Corpsman Dey: John C. Reilly
Nova Prime: Glenn Close
The Collector: Benicio Del Toro

With the voices of:
Rocket Raccoon: Bradley Cooper
Groot: Vin Diesel

Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios present a film directed by Peter Gunn. Written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Running time: 121 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and for some language).

Here’s the genius of the Marvel movie model—it keys into the entertainment memories from childhood of the adults who are now responsible for helping their children to make childhood memories.  The people consuming and writing about movies today are the people who developed their passion for movies consuming the very types of movies and comic books that Marvel’s are based on. They are also using filmmakers who had similar experiences as children.

The director of Marvel’s latest entry, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, is James Gunn. He’s one year older than myself. I’m sure “Star Wars” was just as monumental an event in his life as it was in everyone of my generation’s. Perhaps he and his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman, exchanged mix tapes as teenagers. The mix tape was another cultural phenomenon for children growing up in the 80s. It’s also an unexpected integral plot point of this movie.

Peter Quill, the film’s hero, is also a child of the 80s. He’s obsessed with a mix tape given to him by his mother. He listens to it as she is on her deathbed with cancer. The night she dies, aliens abduct Peter. 28 years later, he’s still in space, still listening to his mother’s Awesome Mix Tape, Vol. 1. He’s a thief working with a group called the Ravagers. They’ve been commissioned by a mysterious solicitor to steal an orb.

A fanatical alien of the Kree race, Ronan the Accuser, is also seeking the orb. Ronan sends Gamora, one of two daughters of the powerful titan Thanos, to steal the orb from Quill. Also looking to lift the booty are two mercenaries, Rocket, a walking, talking, robotically enhanced raccoon and Groot, a walking, talking tree, whose entire vocabulary consists of the words “I am Groot.” After being captured and imprisoned by the Nova Corps, the police force of the world of Xandar, they meet Drax the Destroyer, who has vowed to kill Ronan for the death of his family. When it becomes clear that Gamora has betrayed Ronan to keep the orb from falling into Ronan’s hands, it seems a team has formed.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was considered a bit of a risk for a Marvel Universe movie because the team and individual characters weren’t as well known as other Marvel properties. Without the name recognition, some analysts felt the fans wouldn’t flock to the film. The thing is, Marvel’s success has been based on risks like this. Instead of just making superhero movies, Marvel’s approach has been to make genre movies starring superheroes. “Captain America: The First Avenger” was more like an Indiana Jones movie crossed with a World War II flick. The second Cap movie was based off the 70s spy model. Even the uber-successful “The Avengers” worked because its approach was more like an ensemble dramedy, using Joss Whedon’s skills with ensemble banter as its foundation rather than the more typical superhero machismo. “Guardians” is just a space opera approached from the bubblegum pop culture referencing style that has tied all of these Marvel films together.

I would guess that a second viewing would reveal even more inter-Marvel Universe referencing, as it seems Gunn has packed it wall-to-wall with off-hand comments and elaborate background information. The Collector’s gallery must hold untold easter eggs that will undoubtedly be revealed for months to come on the Interwebs. Surely, Thanos will be back in an important role in future Marvel films, and the studio was quick to reveal that the sequel to “Guardians” would be filling one of their 2017 spots. But, none of this really has much to do with why the film works on its surface. That more likely has to do with casting and the delivery of its content.

Chris Pratt has emerged as the new model of the leading man in an action films. He’s charming, but not quite all together. That’s how we like our heroes these days, and Pratt pulls it off to pitch perfection. Bradley Cooper threatens to steal the show providing the voice of Rocket. Zoe Saldana once again proves her worth as an action heroine. The surprise of the bunch is Dave Bautista, a former WWE star, who plays the brute Drax the Destroyer. Drax comes from a race that is extremely intelligent but has no gift for figurative thought. This provides his character with the best vocabulary of the bunch and some of the film’s most intelligent comedy. Bautista delivers his too literal punch lines perfectly.

The action is straight out of some of the best science fiction thrillers over the past thirty years. It stands up to the best space operas, such as ‘Star Wars”, “The Fifth Element” and “Titan A.E.” There’s a wonderfully executed prison break, with some surprising comic touches to it, thanks to Rocket and Groot. The spacecrafts are just what you’d want to be bouncing around space in these days. The Xanderian world is well defined with minimal time spent establishing the more droll elements of a cosmic society. And the combat scenes are understandable, instead of being jumbled messes of editing and half seen movements.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is far from a profound piece of entertainment, but it is extremely entertaining. Peter Gunn exhibits the ability to work within Marvel’s style of cross-referencing and pushing the bounds of genre expectations, while still delivering an enjoyable cinematic experience. His lifetime knowledge of the genres involved allows him to expertly execute his direction of these elements. And boy, can he put together a soundtrack. The credit cookie, which was directed by Gunn unlike some of the previous ones which were directed by the directors of the films they were teasing, will be much more satisfying to those who get it than those who don’t. It’s pretty obscure, unless of course you were a child of the 80s.

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