In the tradition of more recent Hollywood successes, the key ingredients seem to come from emerging new voices standing behind the camera. James Gunn, a filmmaker who is relatively fresh to the fold of directing high-budgeted studio films, is clearly bewitched by his material here; he does not see the story or its players as just pieces in an overreaching concept, but rather as integral instruments in a self-contained fable that defies the conventions of its comic book origins. Never before have we even seen some of these sights, or imagined them pitched with such utter zeal. And as for the ensemble standing in the foreground, they possess the kind of energy that recalls “Mystery Men” but was distinctly lacking in “Fantastic Four” – they aren’t just basins for one-liners, but fully realized identities that speak and interact with conviction, and offer some of the most notable quirks of any film of this nature. In all the possible statements that could be made about a film in this moment, the most startling is the realization that this year’s most interesting personality on screen belongs to a gun-toting raccoon.
Who is he? Who are his team members? I am getting ahead of myself. The movie opens in 1988, during one of those all-too-familiar prologues in which a young kid is caught in one of those moments that will shape him into something distinct – in this case, the untimely death of his mother, who is succumbing to something terminal. In most movies, the transition is usually abrupt; in the case of young Pete, he runs outside after she passes, into an open field and then is snatched up by a looming spacecraft. 26 years later, he has grown into Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a thief amongst an organized troupe of renegades that calls himself “Starlord.” Caught in a routine in which he is usually dispatched into some obscure corner of the galaxy to snatch up valuable items to sell for profit, his latest illegal excursion has caught the attention of a notorious figure known for mass killings: a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace), who also doubles as a disciple for an even bigger foe, Thanos (Josh Brolin). Airs of mystery surround them both, but this much is true: Peter’s latest possession makes him an immediate target against said antagonists, setting him and an assemblage of newfound friends on a mission to deliver it to the safety of someone else (and possibly save an endangered empire in the process).
The artifact, concealed in a round silvery ball found on the surface of some desolate planet, inspires tremendous fascination. What is it? Why is it so highly sought after by known enemies of the universe? Peter is ambivalent about its importance until a green-skinned figure named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) attempts to steal it, acting on a betrayal of her adoptive father Thanos. Their very public brawl also attracts the attention of additional tag-alongs: Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a foul-mouthed genetically engineered raccoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking plant-like organism who is also Rocket’s trusted companion. Eventually their antics land them in a floating prison referred to as “The Kyln,” and there they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a warrior who has sworn vengeance on Ronan for murdering his own family. Needless to say, he opts to tag along on the journey of selling the notorious artifact, hopefully killing his sworn enemy in the process.
Their unlikely union is merely a circumstantial one, but that really isn’t the point; they exist here in a collective sweep of comedic impulses, sharing chemistry and dialogue that adds to the context of their zany adventure while inspiring tremendous chuckles. One of the film’s great running jokes involves the Groot character, whose only vocabulary involves the three words “I am Groot.” For Rocket, they have different meanings depending on the tone at which they are spoken, and there are scenes in the film where they have spirited discussions that seem to happen with very few words. Another: Peter possessively carries around an old cassette Walkman that plays very old top 40 songs, and when he shares them with Gamora, their interactions become briefly seductive before she punches him in an attempt to ward off his “pelvic sorcery.” Later, when she remarks about how dirty his ship is, his response is perfect: “If I had a black light, this place would look like a Jackson Pollack painting.”
If these are characters we have never quite seen assembled in this manner, then the worlds they travel through offer some of the most impressive sights of any movie of this nature. Nearly every frame is occupied by a sight that is as vast as it is imaginative. In addition to that impressive prison, a floating vessel isolated somewhere between distant stars, there is also a wondrous and beautiful planet called Xandar (“the seat of the Nova Empire”), a foreboding warship referred to as the Dark Aster, a cluster of broken asteroids called the Sanctuary, and a mining community called the Knowhere (which is housed within the mined skull of a dead celestial). Each of these settings are not mere backdrops to inspire momentary wonder; characters interact with them in fully dimensional fashion. The production design by Charles Wood (“Thor: The Dark World”) is one of the great cinematic spectacles of the 21st century. So, too, is the cinematography by Ben Davis; avoiding all instincts to absorb the action in shaky framework and non-stop edits, his camera is content to pan back and take in the full scope of the visuals. It is not often in any movie of this nature to create a tangible sense of space, but Wood and Davis’ synergy does just that, and the result doesn’t just indulge in the limitless possibility of movie visuals, but informs them.
All of this also inspires somewhat of a pause of relief. Where was this genre going, after all? After seeing new entries this year into the “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Captain America” franchises (all with varying successes and failures), what was left for Marvel to do, other than continue on the path of crafting very ambitious (but mildly amusing) action pictures that usually followed in line with their tried-and-true formula? Now, in a moment where hindsight has inspired heightened new perspectives, the possibilities seem just as endless as they did when this entire venture began, and at the center of the frames are standing figures that are not just vehicles for superpowers, but also for genuine and insatiable personalities. “Guardians of the Galaxy” sets a clear benchmark for which these kinds of movies can learn from. To call it the most entertaining movie of the summer would be a gross understatement.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Sci-Fi/Comedy (US); 2014; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language; Running Time: 121 Minutes
Chris Pratt: Peter Quill
Zoe Saldana: Gamora
Dave Bautista: Drax
Vin Diesel: Groot
Bradley Cooper: Rocket
Lee Pace: Ronan
Produced by Victoria Alonso, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Alan Fine, David J. Grant, Nikolas Korda, Jeremy Latcham, Stan Lee and Jonathan Schwartz; Directed by James Gunn Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the comic book created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning