Guardians Of The Galaxy


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is good fun."

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Comic book movie franchise has left Earth far behind. Yes, the Thor instalments featured the more-than-vaguely Tolkien-esque planet/world Asgard, which in the Marvel Universe exists in some vague position of galactic supremacy over ‘earth realm’ (or something), but apart from the opening five minutes of James Gunn’s colourful and irreverent sci-fi action flick, we are largely in a galaxy far, far away. This setting, plus the fact that the Guardians are clearly characters from the second rung of Marvel comic book ranks, has led this film to be branded something of a risk, a bold step for the studio.

In truth, Marvel is owned by Disney. Risks are not part of the equation. This is a major blockbuster-budgeted film where the plot beats, SFX, character arcs and action sequences tick a lot of the required boxes. You can still sense the sleek beast that is the Marvel machine at work. But, for me, the better Marvel films have been those where the filmmakers have squeezed more distinctive flavourings into the pot despite the fact that this Universe is increasingly starting to feel as though it's being steered by high level illuminati (the studio producers) as opposed to ‘indie’ filmmakers. Some directors can't make the compromises - witness the recent departure of Edgar Wright from Antman due to "creative differences", which many feel is a euphemism for his refusal to work to the wider Marvel picture.

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Gunn, who wrote the script with Nicole Perlman, deploys several gambits to make his play at the Marvel roulette table stand out, to mostly good effect. His first is the likeable and charismatic actors playing the multi-species titular team, now the second ‘super’ team the Marvel Universe has on its hands. Marvel tends to be good at seeing the value of offbeat casting choices, as I’m sure Robert Downey Jnr, now the highest paid actor in Hollywood following the box office success of the Iron Man series, would agree. Star Chris Pratt (as Star Lord Peter Quill) can do likeable goofball with his eyes closed, so with a few steps to the left, some dialling down of the man-child factor and upping of the swagger quotient, he gives us an easy-to-root-for Han Solo-style lead.

I'm less enthused about Zoe Saldana as Gamora - Marvel has far too few lead female characters and she is another spinning, kicking ninja assassin with a shady past, who feels too close to The Avengers’ Black Widow. Bradley Cooper, as the voice of the sardonic and raccoon-like Rocket, gets many of the laugh lines and gives the little guy some zest, even if he doesn't carry the same weight as the other CGI-assisted lead character on UK cinema screens right now - Caesar from Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Humanoid tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the burly Drax (Dave Bautista) have their moments, though they are mostly used as foils for the more talkative characters. The film fizzes the most when the group are united on screen - far more so than during the more run-of-the-mill space melees and land battles.

Gunn also tackles the fact that the Marvel Universe and the entire superhero genre are soggily weighed down with hackneyed elements by making his characters super-aware of that fact. Flippancy is the name of the game. At one point, one Star Lord even basically utters the word "macguffin" or something close to it, when being told that the Guardians need to stop an object of power falling into the villain’s hand. Because, of course, it will destroy the universe if it does (how many of these objects of power are floating around the Marvel Universe anyway?).

The story opens proper with Peter Quill/Star Lord, who is in fact a former human abductee from Earth, stealing a mysterious orb from a barren world in true Indiana Jones style. Escaping to the peaceful, vaguely Earth-like planet Xandar, Quill wants nothing more than to sell the orb and make some cool cash. But unbeknownst to him, the orb is part of a wider galactic chess game involving some very powerful villains, who are rocking some seriously giant guns (and hammers), as well as creepy face paint. In fact, this orb is, naturally, a mere vessel to hold a weapon from the dawn of creation known as the Inifinity Stone, which has the power to grant super powers to those who can wield it and survive. It is coveted by Ronan, a powerful Kree villain who has the (surprisingly small scale) aim of simply using the stone to grant him the power to destroy the planet (maybe after that he will up his game and destroy the entire universe, it's not made clear).

Quill, not knowing anything of this, ends up forced into an uneasy truce with a group of misfits, none of whom he has met before and some of whom want the bounty on his head more than they want to help him. Gamora, the green-skinned assassin, technically works for Ronan but wants the orb for herself. Rocket and his sidekick Groot, meanwhile, want to claim the bounty, which Quill’s scavenger Group Captain Yondu has placed on him for failing to hand over the orb as planned. When all four collide and get into a melee out in the open on Xander, they are promptly busted by the authorities and shipped off to an asteroid-belt prison station, where they escape with the help of the revenge-driven but super-strong Drax the Destroyer. They then, of course, save the galaxy.

Gunn keeps things light and zany, his film playing out like a fusion of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Star Wars, and Red Dwarf. He populates his galaxy with plenty of oddballs and freaks, complete with crazy hair styles and giant shoulder pads, as if he had inherited the wardrobes from The Fifth Element and Star Trek and mixed them up. At one point Benicio Del Toro turns up looking like an intergalactic Liberace.

The colour palette is mostly cheerily bright, so watching this films is quite like drenching yourself in a bag of smarties. it contributes to the feel of a good, old-fashioned romp that pays its dues to the sci-fi films of old. I approve of what appears to be a significant use of sets and props, as opposed to reliance on the kind of CGI scenery that drained some of the blockbuster spectacles of the 90s and early 00s of any weight and character. There are also welcome pauses to allow at least a few emotional beats: such as Quill’s absurd degree of protectiveness of his retro-walkman heirloom (which cunningly allows Marvel to foreground an old school 70s soundtrack over much of the action), and Rocket’s anger at being casually labelled as a cartoony "raccoon" when he is a product of horrific experiments. It is also never a bad thing to see character actors like Michael Rooker and John C Reilly getting involved; and there are a hat full of other geek-pleasing cameos.

Fans, and many critics, seem to be lapping up the goofy mixture Gunn serves up. I have to admit to a kind of respect for him, and his bosses, for putting something a little more strange than the usual Marvel fare on screen, even if a tonne of money is still propping the whole thing up. However, the self-consciously super-cool and super-flippant screenplay, where characters actively comment on the cliched nature of the plot, simply can't compensate for the fact that there are still cliched, overripe elements aplenty.

It seems to be written in stone tablets from the mountains, for example, that every Marvel movie must end with an airborne battle full of CGI creatures and aircraft/spacecraft, and feature at least one chase scene featuring vehicles or airborne characters ducking and diving through the superstructures of giant space stations or a set of canyons. I couldn't wait for these scenes to end, so we could get back to the real draw - the characters. A lot of Gunn’s galactic window dressing is not particularly fresh - space pirates, grubby cantinas, giant asteroids being mined - even if the colours are pretty. Sometimes it feels as though Gunn is trying to pack in too many characters and places, with the screen ending up looking like a suitcase full of wacky clothes that has burst open.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is good fun. It deserves to do well. It probably will. But don’t tell me it is Marvel’s riskiest, bravest superhero movie yet. I’m still waiting for the Marvel movie that I can truly call bold.

Reviewed on: 02 Aug 2014
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Guardians Of The Galaxy packshot
A pilot is tracked by bounty hunters after stealing a mysterious orb.
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Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Haddock, Sean Gunn, Peter Serafinowicz

Year: 2014

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


EIFF 2015

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