Directed by James Gunn /Written by James Gunn & Nicole Perlman / Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Lee Pace / Cinematography by Ben Davis / Music by Tyler Bates / Production by Marvel Studios
Shooting its opening credits sequence to a blazing, boisterous singalong with Redbone’s funky anthem Come and Get Your Love on an ancient, desolate planet, Guardians of the Galaxy is a ride of pure enjoyment. Anyone who can see a bit of themselves in Guardians’ scrappy hero, Peter Quill (alias, Starlord, played by Chris Pratt) should be more than willing to throw their preconceptions to the wind and let Marvel and writer/director James Gunn kick their asses across the firmament.
Not wasting a moment, Peter Quill’s first act is to unwittingly steal an infinity gem, one of six incredibly powerful stones being sought by Thanos (Josh Brolin), who first appeared as the being behind the invading force in The Avengers. To retrieve the infinity gems, Thanos has enlisted the help of individuals with questionable sanity, such as Ronan (Lee Pace), the fanatical rogue prince of the Kree. Ronan is determined to keep the immense power of the infinity gem for himself and re-ignite the Kree’s age-old feud with the handsome, brightly lit Nova Empire world of Xandar. So begins the hunt for Peter Quill, which drags in Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and opportunistic bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his best friend/walking house plant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
Ladling on the rich, vibrant colours and deep, oily blacks, Marvel is back to the visual house style that came of age with Iron Man 2 (2011) after a welcome deviation earlier this year with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But in keeping with a setting littered with the relics of races whose history stretches far beyond that of Earth, production designer Charles Wood swaps out the sleek, brushed surfaces of Earthling tech for the rusty, more rocky and ancient-feeling textures of other worlds whose, the technology of which has not changed in centuries. Gunn’s playful sensibility and strong affection for grotesquerie recalls Luc Besson and Jean Paul Gaultier’s vision for The Fifth Element (1996) and belies how Marvel’s overall visual aesthetic owes a great deal to the exaggerated style of Jean Paul Jeaunet and Marc Caro. Despite its familiarity, the imagery of Guardians is often breathtaking but little is done with the inclusion of 3D, which just barely pays off during the first all-out action set piece. There is certainly nothing to be missed by relinquishing a redundant layer of plastic between the viewer (and saving a few bucks) as Guardians’ 3D photography seems like it was almost an afterthought. But with action this good, even superfluous 3D can’t ruin the viewing experience.
Through scrapes and rucks that encompass an ingenious escape from a rotten galactic prison and a drunken bar brawl in the severed head of an ancient celestial being (among several other exhilarating and hilarious set pieces), Peter Quill, Gamora, Rocket Racoon, Groot and their prison break partner, Drax the Destroyer (deadpan Dave Bautista) find themselves tasked with the defeat of Ronan as he makes his way to reduce Xandar to a lifeless relic.
A hapless human, abducted from Earth as a child and raised as a galactic outlaw, Peter Quill is both an exceptional and familiar action hero. As Quill, Chris Pratt graduates to movie star status as if it were as easy as making waffles in the morning. He gels effortlessly with the textured, rusted-out worlds of Marvel’s intergalactic outlaws and never seems so cocky or so at home there that the connection between him and his painfully remembered home world is lost. Quill’s cocky quick wit and self-preservational cowardice attract comparisons with Han Solo (of the “Han shot first” variety). That Pratt can hold his own in an ensemble comedy hidden within an action epic speaks highly of his experiences in comedies like NBC’s Parks & Recreation but also of Gunn’s confident scripting and direction. Guardians scores high for laughs per minute and when the humour lets up it is in service of operatic action and moments of pathos earned honestly by the establishment of Peter Quill as a big kid smart enough to know that a real childhood back on Earth would have been better for him.
Gunn captures the most appealing, exciting and charming qualities of the most notable action fantasies that a dorky kid of Peter Quill’s age would have grown up watching. This is the key to Guardians’ essential enjoyability: the presence of an audience surrogate who is not a blank canvas to catch the projections of every audience member. Instead Peter Quill is a fully formed man-child, specific to a group within a generation who came of age with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Goonies (1985), The Lost Boys (1987) and The Fifth Element. Not coincidentally, these are the same people that have shaped what internet fandom is today. They are the people that give credibility to the real world celebrity of a fictional character like Tony Stark. They are the people who dream of being Steve Rogers and fantasise about the wrongs they could right with the transformative inner power of Bruce Banner or Peter Parker. But where these characters indulge fans’ fantasies by embodying particular traits and ideals, Peter Quill lives the fans’ ultimate fantasies as a nerd among the stars. Were he not abducted by aliens as a child, Peter Quill would have grown up only dreaming of close encounters with hot green chicks as he dragged himself to and from his part time job at a video rental store/comic store/record shop/Best Buy customer service desk. As it is, Quill has taken the hand the universe dealt him and played it to the benefit of exploring (and plundering) strange worlds, sleeping around every race with females not endowed with tentacles or needles for teeth and somehow never experiencing the frustration of tape-degradation after twenty-six years of playing the same cassette over and over again.
As scripted by Gunn and played by Chris Pratt, Peter Quill’s greatest distinction from most other wish-fulfilment avatars is the completeness of his personality and buddy-cop style daftness that gives him more in common with anime characters like Spike of Cowboy Bebop or Vash the Stampede of Trigun than it does with most Western action heroes.
But Guardians must know its younger audience members as well as it does geeks of a certain age. Where most young men will identify strongly with Peter Quill, everybody, regardless of age, will almost certainly be won over by the boundless charm of gentle giant, Groot, whose only utter able phrase “I am Groot” is mined deeply for incredulity, poignancy and deadpan humour by the wonderful voice of Vin Diesel. Groot’s placid demeanour stands at great odds with his intimidating size and brittle body; in many ways, he’s the Wookie analogue that Star Wars nerds’ kids will immediately love more than they love Chewbacca (and it will crush those nerds’ hearts!) On the flip side is the spiky little
man with a big chip on his shoulder, Rocket Racoon, whose charm hinges on his obvious insecurity as much as it does on the contrast between his cute, cuddly exterior and his belligerent misanthropy. Between talented voice actors like Diesel and Cooper and the industrious effects artists that design, render, manipulate and animate every one of Groot and Rocket’s movements, there is yet another strong case to be made for the industry to begin recognising and celebrating the achievements of an ensemble in bringing a single character to the screen.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017) is perhaps my most anticipated of Marvel’s Phase Three roll-out because of the promise of returning with Chris Pratt and James Gunn to the further misadventures of this motley bunch of heroes. Guardians finally succeeds in proving that there is a place in the MCU for an out-and-out comic book style film, where the scope of the story is as huge as the characters are lovable and well crafted. As with any enduring comic book, it is the characters and the talented performers and screenwriter behind them that really make Guardians into something special. Though he had Marvel’s house style to consider, James Gunn clearly felt it right to make Guardians into the black sheep of the MCU, a goal reflected most explicitly and enjoyably in his decision to film to the pre-composed music of Peter Quill’s “Awesome Mix Tape Vol.1” and Tyler Bates’ effective score. Here’s hoping that the mysterious talk of who Peter Quill’s extra-terrestrial asshole father is does not develop into anything resembling ideas of a destiny for Peter Quill, which could well tarnish the devil-may-care attitude that pervades this particular corner of the universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy opened in China on 10th October 2014 by HuaXia and made off with $96,470,000 of its $768,009,017 booty (thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers).