Harsh Texture

Guardians of the Galaxy

A powerful artifact links five ne'er do wells against a warlord in the stars

The Marvel process is very familiar by now: hire critically acclaimed directors to add flavor to the scenes between the CGI battles. Hire as many best supporting actor nominees as possible, rounding out the cast with a winner or two for good measure. Center the film around a good looking guy starved until his abs show, and have everyone play it safe. Through these simple steps Marvel has become the premier studio of the day. They aim low--I seriously doubt any of these films will get awarded for their acting, direction, or screenplays--but the quality is so consistent at the cinema that their logo alone could probably open a blockbuster. This is in stark contrast to recent studios that captured the public imagination. Pixar at its peak prods (or is that ‘prodded’, past tense) the very limits of family entertainment, showing how much dramatic wiggle room existed in a G film devoid of blood and sex. Miramax empowered the pop culture auteurs of the 90’s and rode the cultural zeitgeist straight into the Bush administration.  

Guardians of itself is a huge gamble. This is a property next to no one knew about before the film was announced. Even though the group starred in a critically acclaimed series, fan interest wasn’t enough to keep it going. More surprising, Guardians eschews superheros altogether.  Many of the characters and creatures are super strong, to be fair, and could slot comfortably into the Avengers. Instead Guardians veers right into pop culture sci fi, and it’s the best such movie since at least The Fifth Element. The obvious touchpoint is Star Wars which the film quotes frequently, if not subtly. To my eyes the sequences in the escape pods, and of Quill entering his ship directly nod to A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back without parroting them.  That’s okay.  There’s no way to watch A New Hope, for instance, and not see a few similar touches from Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress.

Guardians begins with a young Peter Quill at his ill mother’s bedside. She’s succumbing to cancer, and when Peter demurs from an embrace, she passes. In a fit, the young boy bolts from the hospital. It’s the darkest opening to a mainstream film since Up, but rather than drill deeper into mortality it’s straight to the stars! As Quill begins to run, there’s a fantastic jump cut, the halls of the boisterous hospital are suddenly empty. He runs out of the building and not an attendant, not an ambulance, not another patient, intrude his flight. Fifty feet from the hospital, an alien ship teleports the young boy right off the earth.

Twenty years later, the now grown Quill (Chris Pratt) is pillaging the ruins of long dead civilizations. He is operating behind the backs of the Ravagers--a group of space traveling salvagers who raised Quill to be one their own--for this particular job. The quarry is a metal orb that contains [spoiler]one of the infinity stones[/spoiler], or in other words a classic Marvel macguffin. It’s strange how these power stones can inspire decades of comics in continuity yet in the movies are just groan worthy. When you see it, you know it will be used briefly by the enemy at the climax, and it’ll glow and shoot lasers and stuff. I guess we should all be grateful that Marvel stopped asking their villains to growl like dinosaurs in the final confrontation. It didn’t look good on Jeff Bridges et al.

The orb gets Quill into more trouble than usual as its also sought after by the Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace)--just the latest in the long line of big bads that are somehow more generic than the MacGuffins. It’s not bad company, joining Hugo Weaving, Gary Shandling, and  Robert Redford. Meanwhile Quill’s surrogate family in the Ravagers have put a bounty on his head.  

All this puts Quill in the sights of Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), a green skinned assassin, adopted daughter of Thanos the Mad Titan; and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), the former a anthropomorphic gun-totting raccoon, and the latter a true hearted tree creature. The group will be rounded out by the very strong, humorously unhumourless Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

At this point describing the plot becomes much too tangled with fantasy jargon and exposition. It’s best just to watch it unfold, as Gunn never lets the film get bogged down by its mythology. Quill is the only character who gets any direct focus on his past, and then only in the brief opening sequence. We are spared long training sequences, or flashbacks to his upbringing.  The rest of the characters barely get two sentences to describe their origins and motivations. Anything more is simply hinted at, like when Quill catches a glimpse of Rocket’s back and surgical grafts.

And you know what? This works fantastically.  Cast against other superhero films that devoted substantial running time to the history of their characters, specifically Batman Begins and Captain America: the First Avenger, Guardians “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” approach is a welcome change of pace.

Guardians gambles on putting its established A-Listers (Cooper and Diesel) in the soundbooth, their characters mo-capped CGI, while putting untested Pratt and Bautista at the fore. Saldana already has two hit franchises under her belt, and with Guardians seems on a steady trajectory to super stardom.

Still though, Guardians plays everything safe. The next film is promised before the credits even roll, refresh my memory, were any of the James Bond films so bold? As such Guardians really doesn’t play its cast for all their worth. It’s more than content just to sell each scene and move on. The film works best when all the principles get to talk out their grievances. I would’ve taken one more of those scenes over any of Ronan’s glowering, but that’s me.

Perhaps significant to sci fi fans, Guardians draws on a less stuffy pop sci fi tradition. There’s pieces of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Richard Corbin in its depictions of alien cosmic worlds. None more Kirby-esque than a mining colony in the skull of a dead god. A bold color palette is often used, from Starlord’s bright red ship, to the rich green of Gamora’s skin. Although much of the film is set in dark environments that keep things from going full technicolor. The only exception are the scenes among the Nova Corps on the sunny planet of Xandar which looks to be a tribute to Moebius with its rich yellows and perfect blue skies.

Stan Lee gets his contract-obligated cameo, but keep your eyes peeled for a brief appearance from Gunn’s former boss at Troma, Lloyd Kaufman during the prison sequence.