Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

The Guardians of the Galaxy prepare for battle.

The Guardians of the Galaxy prepare for battle.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a ridiculously fun, spirited science-fiction epic that takes audiences on a spectacular two-hour thrill-ride while rarely taking itself too seriously.

Director James Gunn goes for big laughs and big adventure in this adaptation of the obscure Marvel Comics title of the same name. Gunn treats the material confidently and most of it works, including the talking raccoon and the talking tree. No, make that especially the talking raccoon and the talking tree. More on these two later. Working from Gunn’s own script, co-written by Nicole Perlman, the film’s action sequences and good nature feel like the genesis of movies like the “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” trilogies.

Chris Pratt is charming as the occasionally dimwitted hero, Peter Quill, a half human/half alien who has been traipsing around the galaxy for the last two decades after being abducted by aliens as a boy. Pratt struts onto the screen at the beginning of “Guardians”, dancing to his lively 70’s tracks on a Walkman and kicking small alien lizards high across the landscape. He grabs one of the creatures and starts singing into its face like a microphone. It’s difficult not to be immediately won over by the actor’s zany charisma.

Quill, who wants only to be known as the outlaw Star-Lord, steals an orb containing a powerful jewel known as an Infinity Gem. The intergalactic villain Ronan (played by Lee Pace) sends Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana) to obtain the orb so that they may return it to Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin). Now with a price on his head, Quill is also being pursued by two unusual bounty hunters: a mouthy raccoon creature known as Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree-like alien whose name is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot land in prison where they meet the musclebound alien Drax and the five quickly form an alliance to escape and prevent the orb, which contains a powerful object called an Infinity Stone, from getting into Ronan’s hands.

Pace serves up plenty of menace as Ronan the Accuser.

Pace serves up plenty of menace as Ronan the Accuser.

Gunn and his cast have a great time with the prison escape scene, which is equal parts thrilling and comedic. Gunn and Perlman arrange for all of the members of the team to have an important part to play in the action and the humor as they are given little time to prepare their breakout. Soon they find themselves zipping through the hull of the jail using a small pod in an exciting sequence reminiscent of Disneyland’s Star Tours ride.

Outside of wrestling Bautista has only a handful of acting credits, but the actor plays the part of the tormented alien believably. During the escape Peter uses a figure of speech and Rocket observes that metaphors go over Drax’s all too literal head. “Nothing goes over my head,” says Drax. “My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.” Bautista has the physical presence for a character such as Drax, but he also has the necessary comedic timing to hold his own against Pratt and Cooper.

As the voice of Rocket, Cooper is almost unrecognizable. However, the actor finds the perfect loud-mouthed tone to sell audiences on an oversized Raccoon with a propensity for malicious behavior. Rocket gets some of the best laughs in the film because he’s its most unpredictable character (a scene involving a prosthetic leg will have you laughing long after you’ve left the theater). When required, Cooper is able to take a dramatic turn as Rocket, specifically in a scene where he confesses the suffering he’s endured after being genetically altered.

Quill, Drax, Rocket, and Groot get the bulk of the laughs while Saldana mostly acts the part of the straight woman to the vagabond quartet. That isn’t to say she isn’t given much to do. As Gamora, Saldana plays the tough-as-nails hero who slowly unveils her humanity as the movie progresses. There are sparks between Gamora and Quill but she keeps him at arm’s length until he is able to reveal his true self and stop trying to play himself off as the playboy adventurer.

Rocket Racoon and Groot are amazing achievements in this special-effects extravaganza.

Rocket Racoon and Groot are amazing achievements in this special-effects extravaganza.

Gunn and Perlman’s script allows for so much fun interplay between the characters that the cast establishes legitimate chemistry by the time we reach the film’s final act. As the Guardians debate how to protect the galaxy from Ronan, we get this hilarious exchange:

Quill: I have a plan.
Rocket: You’ve got a plan?
Quill: Yes.
Rocket: First of all, you’re copying me from when I said I had a plan.
Quill: No I’m not. People say that all of the time. It’s not that unique of a thing to say.
Rocket: Secondly, I don’t even believe you have a plan.
Quill: I have part of a plan!
Drax: What percentage of a plan do you have?
Gamora: You don’t get to ask questions after the nonsense you pulled on Knowhere!
Drax: I just saved Quill!
Quill: We’ve already established that you destroying the ship I’m on is not saving me!
Drax: When did we establish that?
Quill: Like three seconds ago?
Drax: I wasn’t listening. I was thinking of something else…
Rocket Raccoon: She’s right, you don’t get an opinion… What percentage?
Quill: I dunno… Twelve percent?
Rocket: Twelve percent? [breaks into laughter]
Quill: That’s a fake laugh.
Rocket: It’s real!

“Guardians of the Galaxy” succeeds in large part thanks to the careful attention to snappy dialogue and the writers’ ability to find distinct voices for each character. Even Groot, who is only capable of saying “I am Groot” and is the source of some great sight gags, becomes a sympathetic character by the close of the film. Gunn walks a fine line between having “Guardians” be an all out comedy and an action film with plenty of comedic notes. Ultimately we get a thrill ride that allows enough room for Jackson Pollock jokes and 1980’s movie references. The film also contains a fair share of dramatic scenes that work thanks to competent direction, a tight script, and a strong group of actors who understand how to sell the material.

Pace is unrecognizable as Ronan, covered in fearsome black and blue makeup and an imposing uniform that covers the lanky actor from head to toe. Ronan is confident and evil, caring nothing for the death and destruction he has inflicted on the various worlds with which he has come in contact. Ronan’s true cruelty is displayed in a scene between he and Drax, where the villain makes light of the death of Drax’s family. Gunn gives Ronan just enough scenes for the character to make a lasting mark as a formidable Marvel Universe scoundrel.

Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, and Benicio Del Toro don’t get a substantial amount of screen time in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, but these seasoned actors bring gravitas to all of their scenes. Del Toro, as the Collector, lays the groundwork for where future stories might take the Guardians in follow-up adventures. Michael Rooker stands out as Yondu, the callous alien who originally abducted Quill from Earth and raised the boy to become one of Yondu’s best pirates. Rooker chews up the scenery as he puts the prospect of a big payday ahead of his concern for Quill.

Top: Drax’s (Bautista) tribal tattoos give the character a greater commanding presence. Bottom: The symmetrical lines across Nebula’s (Gillan) face create a frightening expression.

Top: Drax’s (Bautista) tribal tattoos give the character a greater commanding presence. Bottom: The symmetrical lines across Nebula’s (Gillan) face create a frightening expression.

A standout achievement in “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the astonishing makeup effects by David White. Gamora, Drax, Nebula, and a host of other characters wear detailed prosthetics to add dimension to their already alien like features. Gamora’s prosthetics are subtle, while Nebula (played by Karen Gillan) has a series of geometric lines across her head which create a chilling visage. White and his makeup effects team have covered Drax in meticulous raised red tribal symbols. With Alexandra Byrne’s eclectic costumes, “Guardians of the Galaxy” offers up a host of different aliens from beginning to end, all with their own unique style.

The special effects, of which there are many, are outstanding. Chief among them are Rocket and Groot. During the course of the film it never crosses your mind that a talking raccoon and tree are not on set with the human characters. Rocket is an amazing accomplishment in adding a CGI character into a live-action world, with his wiry whiskers, his tiny sharp teeth, and his diminutive claws. Groot, a being with ever-growing appendages, is a terrific adaptation from his comic book counterpart. Visually, it’s pretty damn cool to watch all of his branches moving within his frame. And his face, well, it’s just adorable.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” introduces audiences to a corner of the Marvel Universe that is significantly more goofy than what has come before. The film works because it embraces that goofiness and we’re allowed to just enjoy it on its own terms.

Grade: A

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Cast: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill/Star Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket Racoon), Lee Pace (Ronan), Michael Rooker (Yondu Udonta), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), John C. Reilly (Corpsman Dey), Glenn Close (Nova Prime), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector)
Studio: Marvel Studios
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: August 1, 2014

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