Sunday, 3 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, David Bautista, Lee Pace, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman

Directed by: James Gunn

Earth, the 1980’s. Peter Jason Quill, a young boy going through a rough time, vanishes in a flash of light. Twenty years later, and he’s roaming the galaxy as the legendary outlaw ‘Star Lord’ – or at least, that’s what he’ll tell you if you’re willing to listen. Now though, he’s found himself in possession of a seriously hot property, and everyone from assassins to bounty hunters to alien terrorists to near gods want to take it from him. At a time like this, a man needs friends. Unfortunately, Quill’s friends consist of a psychotic, trigger happy raccoon, a walking, just-about-talking tree, a literal minded warrior, and a genetically modified living weapon. And none of them really like him very much.

It’s fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was a bit of a risk for Marvel. Once upon a time, they’d have said the same about the Iron Man franchise, citing the relatively B list character, the lead actor more famous for his drug habits than his screen presence, and the bravery of launching an entire cinematic universe. Guardians…, though, is an entirely different beast – literally, in the case of one of its main characters. For all the differences in Iron Man, we’re essentially talking a fairly familiar story: man goes through personal trauma, changes his life and kicks ass doing it. With Marvel’s latest offering, they’re asking audiences to go and see a wilfully bizarre film that flies in the face of the common theory about superhero films that grim, serious and realistic is better. Not only that, but if Iron Man is B list, then the Guardians are at least D list, possibly even further down.

It’s also fair to say this risk has paid off. At the time of writing, Guardians is doing fantastic business, raking in the third biggest opening weekend of the year (a hefty $94million). However, anyone who has sat through Michael Bay’s Transformers films will be well aware that successful does not necessarily mean good. And for the Guardians, the question of whether it’s any good depends on how you look at it.

The plot is nonsense. I’m saying this as a connoisseur of such nonsense. I’m fairly easy to please; give me a film/book/tv show/videogame that revolves around a bunch of sarcastic oddballs doing crazy stuff in the name of something vaguely heroic, and I’m probably going to enjoy myself. But Guardians plot really is nonsense, a thinly constructed piece about a ragtag bunch of maniacs trying to stop another maniac blowing things up with a glowing Macguffin. It’s the plot of dozens of blockbusters; worse than that, it’s essentially the exact same plot as the last Thor film, bar a few details. This is not a film that’s going to challenge you intellectually. Furthermore – and in another similarity with Thor 2 – the villain is particularly uninspiring. Lee Pace looms dramatically behind a big hat, a bigger hammer and some make-up that would impress Gene Simmons, but he has the character depth of a dead shrimp. This is really something that Marvel need to work on. Thus far, their films have impressed mightily, but their villains are almost uniformly weak. Lee Pace here, Christopher Ecclestone’s growling space-elf in the last Thor film, the entire alien race in Avengers Assemble…other than Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and, arguably, Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, they have little other than action scenes to remember them by.

At least in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy though, you’ll probably be having too much fun to care. I’ve been to see outright comedies where there hasn’t been as much laughter as in the majority of this film. The script is sharp, and the performances (mostly) spot on. Particular mention must go to Chris Pratt, making the emerging characterisation of Quill surprisingly affecting, and Bradley Cooper’s sterling voice-work for Rocket Raccon, who almost steals the film with his non-stop barrage of outrageous lines, ridiculously big guns, and a light touch of tragedy. Less memorable are Saldana and Gillan, saddled with under-written, generic roles. To be fair, there was a tougher challenge here than even Avengers Assemble, which attracted a lot of concern due to having to draw together a bunch of different characters from different franchises. Here, none of them had even had so much as a DVD extra to be introduced, and it’s a credit to all concerned that even though many characters lack real depth, they aren’t quite two dimensional
In between the laughs, there are more traditional blockbuster pleasures to be had. The action scenes are spectacular, although again, it’s the fourth Marvel film in a row which climaxes with a lot of airborne destruction over a city. Chances are this won’t change that much with the Avengers sequel in 2015, although you never know. There’s some surprising inventiveness though, particularly with a scene which manages to make whistling almost terrifying. Presumably, Steven Moffat will be taking notes. And all these scenes are set against a beautifully vivid space opera background, which recalls every cheesy SF serial you’ve ever seen.

Like its lead, it’s a film that swings by on charm, wit and just enough intelligence to surprise. Hopefully, the inevitable sequel will also have learned the lesson that charm isn’t always enough…but for now, I’m just going to revel in the most entertaining film since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

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