Trying to absorb Guardians of the Galaxy

guardiansInstead of deploying new characters to tell the same old superhero stories, Marvel Studios have taken a chance with Guardians of the Galaxy: they’ve resurrected the outer space adventure movie. Over the last decade, even the Star Trek films have struggled or refused to tell a story outside of Earth orbit. The few other space movies tended to be low-key drama (Moon) or horror (Pandorum), or were simply dour and cretinous (Prometheus).

Whether or not the caution was justified, it no longer matters. Guardians has been a massive hit, proving that if a movie prioritises exuberant entertainment and endearing characters, mainstream audiences will even embrace the supposedly nerdy milieu of spaceships and aliens. For those who already enjoy it, Guardians is a reasonably engaging return voyage.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human inexplicably abducted from Earth as a child in the 1980s, is a petty thief hunting down treasure on dead planets as he listens to his Walkman. When he finds the legendary Orb, he discovers that it’s also coveted by Kree fanatic Ronan (Lee Pace), who puts a bounty on Quill. He becomes entangled with a genetically manipulated intelligent racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), his sentient tree bodyguard (voiced by Vin Diesel), a vengeful warrior with no grasp of metaphor (Dave Bautista), and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s hunting the Orb for someone else. As they discover its true purpose, the group have to decide whether to do the right thing.

Because it’s a Marvel production, Guardians is being referred to as a superhero film. But just as Star Wars isn’t despite its supernaturally-powered hero, neither is this. This is a caper movie about saving the galaxy. That it can take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is due to the diverse comic book universe Marvel has established over the last fifty years. Marvel Studios were wise to capitalise on this to offset any looming superhero fatigue. Films like Guardians can fit into their superhero tapestry, but if audiences eventually tire of straight superhero narratives, Marvel can use their backlog of lesser-known characters to tell stories in other genres and styles backed by the power of their reliable brand.

With Guardians, they mostly succeed. Its outer space setting doesn’t achieve the immersive grandeur of Star Wars, but it’s hard for any modern blockbuster to manage that when they insist on such breakneck pacing. Guardians’ main flaw is that, like most of its peers, the editing and camerawork are exhausting. Shots are short and the camera is always roving. The constant motion can be overwhelming.

Writer-director James Gunn has created a visually ravishing world with an admirable zeal for the weird and colourful, but it’s hard to absorb when we only perceive it a glimpse at a time. In a noble quest to create a detailed environment, he’s stuffed the frame with detail and moving parts. This may not be 2001: A Space Odyssey, but when such effort has gone into crafting wondrous sights, why are we barely given time to process them?

Just as the wide shots of a space station built inside a gigantic and ancient severed head or the cavernous interior of Ronan’s ship are sinking in, they’re gone, eliminated by close-ups or a scene change. Star Trek: The Motion Picture gets teased for its endless money shots, but it’s hard not to be wistful for that kind of excess compared to this one. Preventing audiences from fully appreciating their creativity is surely self-defeating for filmmakers operating on this scale. Films like Edge of Tomorrow prove it’s still possible to use modern production values but leave the audience feeling satisfied and exhilarated rather than drained and addled.

While the sensory bombardment is a hindrance, it doesn’t stop Guardians being a fun ride. The script is straightforward but cohesive and sharp, giving the main characters plenty of room to develop. Credibly transforming a group of criminal misfits into willing saviours is always difficult – especially when one of them is a belligerent racoon – but Gunn just about manages it, building to a surprisingly stirring climactic gesture. Marvel has been at the forefront of restoring a balance between comedy adventure and serious stakes to big-budget cinema and it gives Guardians welcome if cursory weight. Quill and Drax’s grief and Rocket’s fury over how he was created don’t feel shoehorned into a lightweight movie to add some pathos. The tone is carefully judged so both the self-aware jokes and the sadness cohere.

As Peter Quill, Chris Pratt is the standout of the cast. The trailers suggested he might veer too close to the self-conscious delivery of his Parks and Recreation character (“Come on, ‘Star-Lord’, man!”), but in the film he eliminates all memory of Andy Dwyer. He’s credible as a thief and man of action while pitching the jokes at just the right level. The script sometimes tries too hard to be funny with scene-stopping jokes that smack of Joss Whedon at his most oblivious, but Pratt balances things perfectly.

Bradley Cooper is a pleasant surprise as Rocket. He’s far from the obvious choice for a gruff racoon bounty hunter, but Cooper roughens and deepens his voice to match Rocket’s scruffy visage and disdainful attitude. Despite all the admiring attention, Vin Diesel’s casting as Groot – who only ever says the same three words – remains an ironic gimmick, but the character is a delight thanks to the script and effects team. Lee Pace is unexpectedly grand and imposing as Ronan but Benicio del Toro’s amusingly weird Collector appears way too briefly, no doubt setting up future Marvel films. Spotting Josh Brolin in Thanos’s motion-captured face is fun, but the character makes virtually no impression. Marvel needs to work harder to turn their future Ultimate Bad Guy into a less boring threat, because the quiet menace they’re going for isn’t making a dent.

Unfortunately, Zoe Saldana gets short-changed. Gamora is the typical capable yet humourless female character saddled with being the straight person and object of desire for the male lead. The other members of the team have distinctive traits and numerous moments in the spotlight, but Gamora is either reactive or an instrument for the story. She even has to get rescued a couple of times. For Saldana to take a third major SF franchise role, the character needed to offer something entirely new, but she’s unable to distinguish such a stock role. Gamora lacks even the subversive moments Black Widow is granted in The Avengers when she nonchalantly turns the tables on her opponents.

With a simple, McGuffin-driven story and a focus on delighting audiences rather than grounding their imaginations with darkness and excessive rationalisations, Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome shift away from the summer blockbuster standard. But it still fails to be that memorable given all the work being showcased on screen isn’t given a chance to register. Christopher Nolan may have turned superhero films down a dark path for a while, but he refrained from cluttering the frame and always ensured you could absorb the world he was creating. If Marvel can create worlds that linger in films that are still vibrant and joyful, they could be churning out classics we’ll always remember, not just a respectably good time at the movies.

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