Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)- An Adventurous Interstellar Western Filled with Dynamic Antiheroes, Genuine Wit, and Gorgeous Fantastical Landscapes

guardiansofthegalaxy1Marvel’s well-oiled production machine has begun to feel a little stale as of late as some of the story structures have fallen into feeling a little too predictable and the characters seemed a little too complacent in their roles as charming figures rather than complexly layered characters. Minus the action spectacle that was the accumulated aim for The Avengers and political thriller effectiveness of Captain America 2: Winter Soldier, which still possessed the burden of formulaic structure, none of the sequel installments from Thor 2: The Dark World or any of the continuations of the Iron Man franchise have reignited our sense of wonder with the universe of Superheroes. However, that unstimulating expectation of Marvel changes here with James Gunn’s take on a tertiary comic known as the Guardians of the Galaxy that is filled to the brim with stylish wit, a kinetic energy, and a visual authenticity that seeps into the cracks of a typical blockbuster’s dependency on explosions and childish humor. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t feel polished or rigidly constructed and that works as a parallel to the characters, the humor, and the action because there’s something to be admired about a group of unwieldy compatriots who embody more chaos in their plans than they do rational sensibility.

Of course that dogmatic hand of Marvel has indeed kept its hand on the pulse of this adaptation and can be felt throughout, but the material lends itself to be different from the rest as the term hero has now been effectively replaced with antihero. The script written by director James Gunn (Super, Slither) and newcomer Nicole Perlman finds a genuine link to the original characters conceived by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in 1969 that follows a group of outsiders whose moral sensibilities are a tad greyer than your average superhero. In essence Guardians of the Galaxy is a space western that has an open world as expansive as Star Wars, characters as vibrant as Cowboy Bebop, and a humorous sensibility as sharp as Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Where the Marvel formula takes life from the narrative in minor tone inconsistencies from extremely dark consequence to immature childish humor be sure that the other qualities from the script, especially in the vein of character, keeps the story wildly original and undeniably charming. It’s surprising to think that a comic from the late 60s could end up feeling so refreshingly modern and not take itself so seriously which most likely can be attributed to the connection writer/director James Gunn must have had with adapting the material.

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At the heart of this interstellar western filled with questionably flawed heroes is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a dashing scavenger who has the bravado of Han Solo and the gracefulness of Gene Kelly constantly at battle with his inner sense of good and his adopted sense of selfishness as a survival tactic in deep space. After Quill comes into possession of an infinity stone he becomes a target for a wide variety of interested parties including a betrayed scavenging partner Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), two bounty hunters comprised of a talking raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his monosyllabic walking tree partner Groot (Vin Diesel), and a deadly assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who is sent by a genocidal villain named Ronan (Lee Pace). After a clumsy encounter that leaves Quill, Rocket, Groot, and Gamora imprisoned they turn to each other in a desperate, untrustworthy companionship alongside vengeful and literal speaking prisoner Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in order to get out and share in the wealth that could be had in selling the infinity stone. What starts off as a pact amongst thieves turns into a bond of friendship and trust based on the group’s similarities of loss, alienation, and melancholy allowing each of them to find what they couldn’t find elsewhere in the Universe: understanding.

Each of these vibrant characters are brought to life through James Gunn’s script but also in how they fit in an equally vibrant environment made through the awe-inspiring special effects achievements that create an expansive world of fanatastical landscapes and unique alien creature designs. Worlds such as Xandar (pretty sure what Alderaan would have looked like pre-Death Star), Morag, and an odd place known as the Celestial Head each have their own personality in tonal shading and expressive detail certainly made possible in both Charles Woods’ production design and the post-production dependency but undoubtedly aided by the initial visual eye of cinematographer Ben Davis. Whether it’s capturing the colorful details of characters such as the green of Gamora or darkened blue of Ronan and making sure that the stunt choreography of fighting makes coherent sense there’s definitely a visual ingenuity behind each moment that seems refreshing especially in the Marvel Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy might get confusing at times for audiences looking for constant exposition as to where they are, what’s going on, and what new character is on the screen but really it’s a relatively contained presentation that keeps things interesting and moving most notably through the kinetic energy involved in the action. None of the action seems superfluous and always has an impact on the continual narrative trajectory that is needed for action films but often times doesn’t find that sense of purpose.

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Purpose is definitely something that James Gunn has sought out for himself and this adaptation involving a motley crew of antiheroes. If there are people who are completely ambivalent to the source material of Guardians of the Galaxy they will be transported in all of its possibility thanks to director James Gunn and the visual authenticity he brings to the table. Beyond the visual James Gunn as an ex-Employee of Troma Entertainment and the creator of darkly humorous parodies on the horror genre (Slither) and the superhero obsession (Super) brings to the writing a tongue in cheek referential sensibility and an attitude that suggests never taking anything all that seriously. This attitude prevails throughout Guardians of the Galaxy as it becomes a genuine avenue for simplistic fun that has the bonus of being so much more due to the dynamism of the characters, the lively performances that brings those character to life, and the beautifully detailed environments that creates a genuinely realized imaginary world that seems unique when all of it could have seemed familiar. It’s a world of authentic consequence as the villain Ronan the Accuser embodies the genocidal intention to a realized outcome giving our heroes an actual reason to become the unlikeliest of heroes to a society that considered them outcasts. Without a filmmaker who connected with the motley crew of complex antiheros and foresaw a visual world that would do the comic justice this risky Marvel endeavor would have fallen drastically flat and would have never found a connection.

But that just isn’t the case of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy as the film embraces a non-serious attitude that only heightens the level of fun that can be had with characters that are far more layered than their outer appearances allow them to be and in a world where the expansiveness could have drowned out everything else. Gunn’s direction guides this potentially erratic risk of a project into a entertaining success where the action, though at times cluttered, remains fresh in execution and where the wit never really dies down. This is a space opera combined with an interstellar western that has a good deal of heart to be found in its damaged characters where the dogmatic Marvel controlling hand on narrative formula only distracts with mere moments and occasional tone inconsistency. These are minor inconveniences and mostly forgotten once you get swept up in the adventure and that’s what most blockbusters are missing these days. Let’s hope that Marvel can learn that giving creative control to a filmmaker taking on a risky endeavor can fit into your larger idea of a tonally consistent Universe (a lesson that may have been learned a tad too late).

Grade: B+

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