One note to start: There will be no mention of the horrifying event involving Karen Gillan that this film’s production caused. This link will be its only reference.
Comic book movies tend to be things I avoid, especially Marvel creations (I have always thought that Marvel was silly and child-like even compared to other comics, and their palpable self-love and conviction of their own importance is often a gag-worthy addition to the commercials that they label as films.), though they can work. The thing is, they’ve only worked when truly talented directors have “slummed it” by making films like Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2005) or Superman (Richard Donner, USA/UK 1978). Those directors used what their source material gave them to do what made sense: Nolan used the darkness, insanity, and pain at the heart of Batman’s mythology to create a dark, gritty film that, because of Batman’s reliance on intelligence and science, did not need to be too far outside of the real world. Donner built an outsized world of moral absolutes in which the boy scout Superman and his protection of a populace so innocent as to be childlike made sense. It may seem like it’s a matter of either making the source material more realistic or building a less realistic world, but it was really probably more a matter of putting real talents in charge of the projects.
James Gunn certainly isn’t anywhere near Christopher Nolan or Richard Donner’s track record. Truthfully, his track record was one of the biggest reasons to question this film. However, there were still a number of reasons to think this film had a chance:
- The light-hearded, fun trailers featuring well-chosen ’70s music. It didn’t seem to be targeting the usual 16-year-old boy demographic of tentpole films, and it didn’t seem to be taking itself at all seriously, which is good for a film with such an outlandish premise.
- These superhero films constantly have Official Overqualified Actors, whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, USA 2014), Morgan Freeman in Batman Begins, or Marlon Brando in Superman. This film had those in Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close, but the rest of the cast was full of people who were either talented actors (Chris Pratt, Djimon Hounsou), impossibly charismatic (Chris Pratt), very good at specific types of roles (Michael Rooker), some combination thereof, or Karen Gillan.
- Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel were off-screen providing voices, so they could only do so much damage. Hopefully Cooper learned to use more than 10% of his brain.
- How bad can a movie that uses “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Spirit in the Sky” in its trailers be? Okay, so maybe that’s not very strong.
So, while I went in with trepidation, I did go into Guardians of the Galaxy with hopes of something worth watching. And it turns out that I got probably the best I could hope for from a superhero movie not helmed by a proven director.
The film opens, rather oddly given what follows, with a scene of a child in 1988 sitting in what is clearly a hospital, listening to a cassette tape conspicuously labeled “Awesome Mix vol. 1,” hearing 10cc’s great “I’m Not In Love.” The nostalgia level of the film and its love of early ’70s pop music is clearly established, but then we watch as the child has his final meeting with his mother before she dies. He runs outside only to be abducted by an alien ship. It’s a dark opening to a very light film.
Then, however, Gunn makes it very clear what kind of film this is: The adult version of Peter Quill arrives on a planet, searching through it for something. When he nears his destination, he makes his way through something akin to Tolkien’s dead marshes, filled with small-bodied, large-toothed creatures that react violently to his presence. It’s a sequence that in most films would be a dread-filled, suspenseful build-up. Instead, Chris Pratt is kicking the small creatures around and using one as a microphone as he dances through to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s a goofy inversion of the typical superhero movie aesthetic, but it’s one that’s fun and more than welcome. And the rest of the film continues in that vein.
Further, the film actually has a unifying point (beyond “Go see more Marvel movies!”)–the power of friendship. It’s a film about a group of outcasts who band together to save a galaxy that has all but rejected them, and every step of the way it’s friendship and teamwork that makes for strength and the loneliness of power-seeking that causes destruction. It’s a little facile and obvious, but subtlety, thy name is not known in the land of comics.
Unfortunately, Gunn and cinematographer Ben Davis let down a film that is otherwise working with their cartoonish visuals. I tend to call everything that has a lot of CGI a cartoon, but this one was over the top even compared to most of those. The distinction between this film and the animated Disney film that played as the last trailer before it was honestly a bit difficult to see. Also, their vision of space is startlingly lacking in imagination and wonder. Gunn should have sat down and watched Cosmos beforehand and maybe his lifeless vision of space would have looked better. If you’re going to go all-in on CGI, at least let your imagination run wild.
Acting-wise, the film doesn’t really require anything of anyone, but everyone acquits himself/herself reasonably well. Even professional wrestler Dave Bautista is fine in a one-dimensional role. Chris Pratt’s acting chops are not really on display here, but his charisma carries the role. Djimon Hounsou is an actor we should see far more often, and even in this cast he lights up the screen whenever he is on. While I still question casting Karen Gillan in a role where she’s going to be covered with CGI and makeup, she played the ice queen character perfectly well.
While the source music is also excellent, Tyler Bates deserves some credit for the score he put together, which is consistently great.
All told, the film works pretty well. It’s a bit dumb and it looks like a cartoon, but it’s one hell of an enjoyable big dumb cartoon.
- Did I just miss it or did they not explain what happened to Nebula? She took that other ship and started flying up toward Gamora again and then we didn’t see her again. Is that going to be the story thread for the second film? Would that mean that Karen Gillan gets more screen time next time??!!
- I was really afraid that the music gag was going to be a long build-up to him listening to “A Space Oddity” as he took off at the end, especially since the Collector really seemed like a role tailor made for David Bowie (Benicio del Toro played it, but something about it made me think that Bowie would have been perfect. I’m glad it didn’t.
- About 20 minutes into the film, I was thinking, “Okay, why on earth is Peter’s music like 20 years out of date for his age? I assume that the deal is that he’s just listening to this same tape forever–it’s probably all the earth music he has. Is it that his mother made him the tape?” When he revealed that his mother did make him the tape, I felt rather smug.
- It felt a little weird the way Zoe Saldana was supposed to be the sex symbol in a film that includes Karen Gillan.
- Why on earth did they spend the money it must have cost to get Vin Diesel to do Groot’s voice? Did that strike anyone else as weird?
- When Nebula started to give a typical movie villain speech and Drax cut her off by just shooting her was a great moment.
- A significant amount of the film is very reminiscent of the Mass Effect series. While being similar to a video game would usually be bad, Mass Effect is awesome–my two favorite video games of all time are the first two Mass Effect games for a reason.
- Did they cast Karen Gillan just because she’s tall and looks good in skin-tight clothing? It did give her an intimidation advantage over Zoe Saldana that she’s four inches taller, but it just seems rather a waste of what Karen Gillan brings to the table. Yeah, I have a problem.
- Read this bit of “trivia” from the IMDb page for the film. Heartbreaking and very telling.
- Using the mask to give Chris Pratt a star entrance was a great idea.
- I hate, hate, hate, hate Marvel Studios’s self-important, self-indulgent nameplate animation. Everyone else puts those at the opening, but Marvel instead waits a few minutes–you know, so it’s where the star’s name usually is, because Marvel Studios is convinced that it is actually the star of its films. It’s also very busy and longer than usual. The ugly 20th Century Fox logo with its over-the-top fanfare and the severely outdated MGM lion have their issues, but at least they don’t pretend you went to the movie to see the studio’s name up there. Marvel seems to think you did.