Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is a thrilling, hilarious, bold, and utterly unique movie that I can't possibly recommend enough. It's the first big new addition of characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 3 years since Captain America: The First Avenger put the last piece of the foundation in place for the absolutely amazing Joss Whedon triumph The Avengers. It's also the most oddball story of the bunch, prominently containing as it does such characters as a talking Raccoon named Rocket (literally named after the Beatles' song) and a talking tree named “Groot” who can only say the words “I am Groot”. He's a very memorable character to say the least.

These two are bounty hunters who team up with the cold blooded assassin Gamora, the murderous Drax the Destroyer, and the human Peter Quill, who is a mercenary or thief of some sort packing a series of gadgets which are surely giving Boba Fett a massive hard-on somewhere, to form the titular gang of heroes. In the surprisingly intense and emotional opening scene we see a very young Peter Quill watch his mother die before being suddenly abducted by aliens and taken away from Earth forever. This experience of losing everything is ultimately what draws this group together, and its only one very effective aspect of how writer/director James Gunn tells this story.

The fact that the very heavy opening sequence works so well also sets up a brilliant contrast with the next scene, as Blue Suede's “Hooked on a Feeling” blasts across the title card and we see the adult Peter Quill dancing hilariously through an alien landscape. A huge part of the film's success is its wonderful ability to make instant switches in tone in a way that really enhances the experience. It isn't afraid of taking itself completely seriously as a sprawling space opera but also loves to walk right up to that line of seeming TOO serious and melodramatic before suddenly switching back to being completely irreverent. One minute characters are making intense and dramatic monologues about gaining ultimate power and bringing about the destruction of worlds and juuust when things start to go a little too far and your eyes are about to roll, Peter Quill calls someone a Ninja Turtle, the tension is completely broken and you're right back with it. This one-two punch is played for laughs again and again, but it also helps to sell the outlandish space-opera world of the story.

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill is the guy doing this most of the time and he is a HUGE part of why the movie succeeds on that front. Peter Quill as a character is supposed to the audience surrogate. He's an 80's kid from our world and so he views all of this in much the same way we would. This is a world with talking raccoons and trees and blue men running around and Quill reacts to all of it much the same way you or I would. This forces Pratt as an actor to have to hit a really interesting balance in his performance. Normally in a sci-fi world like this, you want the actors to seem like they totally buy into the reality of the fantasy world their characters inhabit. If you go and watch the audition tapes of various actors reading for Luke Skywalker, you'll see right away why they hired Mark Hammil. He was able to read lines about running to Tosche Station to pick up power converters as though it was a totally normal and mundane chore to be given. Because Hammil was able to take the world completely seriously, we were as well. Pratt has to do the same sort of thing while also filling the role of outside observer who is very much aware of the ridiculousness of it all and in my opinion he completely nails it.

The movie's amazing soundtrack is another huge part of keeping the movie grounded. Peter Quill's “Awesome Mix #1” is a great mix of 70's pop music that will surly go down in history as one of the great movie music mixes alongside The Big Chill or Pulp Fiction soundtracks. The songs are also deployed perfectly in the movie, setting exactly the right tone in the scenes where they appear. But not only do they enhance the style of the film, the music is also a huge part of Peter Quill's character as the cassette tape he uses to listen to these songs are his last and most important connection to Earth and the mother he lost. The cassette plays a significant part in his story and is one of the smartest touches in a very smart screenplay.

The other characters are almost as deep and interesting, although I tend to think Gamora and Drax are slightly less developed and not quite as lovingly rendered as the amazing duo of Rocket and Groot, the MCU's resident Han Solo and Chewbaca pair. Each individual character's personality and the relationship dynamics between them are established with wonderful efficiency. One of my favorite examples of this is when we first get to see Rocket go to work as he mastermind's the group's escape from Space Alcatraz (as I will choose to call it) which involves instructing Quill to steal a man's prosthetic leg. The moment where we discover why Rocket makes this rather odd request was one of my favorites in a movie packed with memorable scenes. The script also moves these characters from enemies to reluctant allies to actual friends in a way that always seemed believable.

The action scenes in these movies are done often long before the script is even finished and they are all very fun, even if I might quibble that some of them seem merely functional in terms of how they are presented. It doesn't really seem like James Gunn really put his own spin on how this stuff was presented. However, this isn't much of a concern though because of how good his screenplay is at putting these moments in an interesting context. The editing also succeeds in conveying the overall ebb and flow of tension in the set pieces. For example, I might not have been blown away purely by the stunt work or choreography of Gamora and Nebula's fight scene, but it did a good job serving its purpose in the context of the scene and built enough tension to keep things exciting. Plus, touches like the irony of watching Groot walking around in the background, prematurely executing the plan Rocket is outlining, help to perfectly set up the action.

Guardians of the Galaxy is my favorite film of the summer, and possibly my favorite film of the entire Marvel series. Its the funniest of the bunch and the best film of the 2nd Phase of the MCU (an arc of films that I think are universally stronger than their predecessors). But it also doesn't require any knowledge of those films to work and I think if people give it the chance, could satisfy a very wide audience of people. Check it out.