Review: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Is a Cinematic Big Bang

Guardians

By now, we're all accustomed to the boundless visual possibilities of computer-generated effects, and aware that we're living in a world in which filmmakers have the ability to show us just about anything within the realm of human imagination. In fact, if you've got enough of the studio's money, amazing visuals are now the easy part -- these days, Hollywood's toughest trick is coming up with enough old-fashioned narrative magic to support all that splendor.

Marvel Studios, a Disney-owned film factory established to churn out regularly spaced adaptations of pulp properties, should be one of the worst offenders, but for years now, they've managed to pull off one impossible-seeming trick after another, minting billions while bowling over the skeptics who suggested that titles like Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor would never work (too niche, too silly, too square). At each step, they've craftily wed talented (and, more importantly, usually quite affordable) stars and crew to their characters, broadening the "comic book movie" landscape to make room for a heck of a lot more than square-jawed dudes in tights.

Still, nothing lasts forever, and one of these days, Marvel is bound to skin its knee on some poor decision or other -- and on paper, opting to greenlight Guardians of the Galaxy would certainly seem to qualify. A relatively little-read title about a ragtag band of mercenary aliens-turned-heroes, including a talking raccoon and a sentient tree? It doesn't exactly sound like blockbuster material.

And yet, in the hands of director James Gunn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman, that's exactly what Guardians of the Galaxy looks like -- not only in terms of critical buzz and analysts' predictions, but where it really counts, right up there on the screen, where the whole thing comes zipping and bamming out in a rainbow-hued orgy of sci-fi, action, comedy, drama, and (trust me on this) throat-lumpening pathos. It shouldn't work at all, not for a moment, but it does -- and Gunn makes it look easy.

The story, as Guardians readers know, starts with Peter Quill, the Earth boy who, as the movie opens in 1988, is facing the gut-wrenching loss of his terminally ill mother. In a basic representation of the movie as a whole, its first few moments whipsaw between easy pop culture nostalgia (young Peter's listening to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" on his Walkman when he's summoned to his mother's deathbed), genuine poignancy, and CGI-fueled action; the whole thing zips by so quickly that Gunn could be accused of using a woman's death as a springboard into a set piece, but like the rest of the film, it balances its separate (and occasionally disparate) elements so skillfully that you won't even see the formula at play unless you're actively looking for it.

And why would you, when there are so many other fun things to see? For starters, there's the nifty visual aesthetic Gunn adopted for Guardians, which balances seamless CG against gunked-up analog artifacts, much the same way one imagines J.J. Abrams intends to with Star Wars: Episode VII. Unlike a lot of these movies, Guardians' world feels lived-in -- dented, dirty, and as real as possible, given the extraordinary circumstances. (Again: talking raccoon.)

Against this backdrop, the movie assembles a fairly terrific cast. As Quill, a.k.a. the self-styled Star-Lord, Parks & Recreation vet Chris Pratt is absolutely perfect; anyone who's seen him on Parks and Rec knows that Pratt can go from oafish to endearing in a few seconds flat, and that skill serves him well here, as do the superhero abs he trained his way toward for the role. As the story proper gets under way, Quill's working as a sort of Indiana Jones/Han Solo hybrid, a roving thief who owes his fealty to a blue-skinned mercenary named Yondu (Michael Rooker). On a job for Yondu, Quill snatches a mysterious orb, only to nearly have his ass handed to him by minions of the bloodthirsty Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who seeks its hidden power in order to help him emerge victorious in a long-brewing galactic war.

That's a fairly long-winded setup, and it's accompanied by reams of portentous-sounding dialogue that, in less skillful hands, would come off as little more than silly. But Gunn keeps things quick and fizzy; for every ounce of epic melodrama, he serves up a poignant moment or (more often) a few shots of laugh-out-loud humor. It's exciting and involving, but maybe more than anything else, Guardians of the Galaxy is really, really funny. It isn't that the movie doesn't take itself seriously on some level -- underneath all the lasers and whatnot, it explores a number of meaningful themes -- but Gunn and Perlman's screenplay is excellent when it comes to leavening that end-of-the-universe stuff with guffaws.

On that score, Pratt's aided and abetted by a rather unlikely-seeming crew: Bradley Cooper, who provides the voice of Rocket, the aforementioned raccoon-type creature; Vin Diesel as Groot the tree alien, who, as he did in The Iron Giant, does a ton with an extremely small amount of dialogue; and Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, whose deadpan delivery is one of the movie's more pleasant surprises. Zoe Saldana rounds things out as the green-skinned Gamora, adopted "daughter" of the mad Thanos (Josh Brolin) -- and while she doesn't get many opportunities to be truly funny, she is pretty badass.

A substantial portion of the film is devoted to the way these characters come together, but Guardians moves more nimbly than most origin stories, owing almost entirely to Gunn and Perlman zeroing in on a crucial difference between this team and Marvel's blockbusting Avengers: where those guys assembled in response to a threat, wearily shouldering a global responsibility, the Guardians are friends, and you feel those bonds start to form on screen. It's a story about orphans, the unmoored, and the family we make after suffering loss. It's about shared pain, and the shared wisdom of hard lessons. It's about honor, and sacrifice. It's about, to paraphrase one of Quill's more emotional moments, giving a shit and not running away. Unlike just about any other superhero movie, it isn't about a quest or a battle that's ultimately pursued because things get personal for the hero(es); when the chips are down, these characters do the right thing -- together -- because it's the right thing.

It's a refreshing change, and one that gives Guardians of the Galaxy a surprising amount of narrative heft -- one that, one could argue, offers a necessary counter-argument to all the gloom and vengeance and soul-crushing weight of so many superhero movies. And best of all? You don't need to think about any of this for a second while watching it all unfold, because it also works really well as a gorgeous, smartly shot action-comedy with a bitchin' soundtrack. Marvel's downfall will come one of these days, but it'll have to wait for another year -- and we can all be thankful for that.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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