How a Space Opera Should Be – Live Action Critique: Guardians of the Galaxy

Title: The Guardians of the Galaxy
Genre: comic adaptation, space opera, sci-fi, comedy
Director: James Gunn
Studio: Marvel Studios
Original Release: 7/8/2014 (Australia)
Running time: 121 minutes

The Standard Promo Poster
The Standard Promo Poster

Synopsis:

In 1988, following his mother’s death, a young Peter Quill is abducted from Earth by the Ravagers, a group of space pirates led by Yondu. Twenty-six years later on the planet Morag, Quill steals an orb only to be intercepted by Korath, a subordinate to the fanatical Kree, Ronan. Although Quill escapes with the orb, Yondu discovers his theft and issues a bounty for his capture while Ronan sends the assassin Gamora after the orb. After fighting Gamaro as well as the bounty hunters Rocket (Raccoon) & Groot, all four are arrested by the Nova Corp & sent to prison station, The Kyln, where they encounter Drax the Destoyer, who wishes vengeance upon Ronan for the death of his family. Together they plan to escape in order to sell the orb but Ronan will stop at nothing to obtain it.


Review:

Guardians of the Galaxy, based upon the Marvel comic of the same title (that had two separate runs many decades apart), would probably be my favourite Marvel film to date.

That is because it eschews most of the standard Superhero fare of moral actions based upon power & responsibility in favour of a more rip-roaring Space Opera epic.

Basically it’s what Firefly wanted to be (yes, am trolling to get more page views) but, in reality, it’s more the best bits of that classic pile of cheese Flash Gordon (1980) mixed with the good Star Wars trilogy as well as some aspects of the aforementioned Firefly in terms of character interactions/relationships.

Don’t want to get on the complaint train right away, so will start with what the film gets right.

It’s a beautiful film.

Utterly stunning visuals, smoothly integrated CGI that will (probably) date well (except in some scenes) coupled with amazing make-up & costuming for the non-human characters. There are tons of wonderfully rendered background details as well, from subtle references to huge city, space & land scapes. This is honestly not a film that could’ve been made a few years ago because of the level of technology & investment that it represents. There would have been no way Marvel Studios & Disney would’ve sunk so much money into visual pre-Avengers.

In so many ways, GotG represents a huge risk that both Marvel & Disney took.

Left to Right: Gamora, Quill/Star-Lord, Rocket, Drax the Destroyer, Groot
Left to Right: Gamora, Quill/Star-Lord, Rocket, Drax the Destroyer, Groot

That’s because outside of the comic fans, the Guardians aren’t really well know & if it wasn’t for the modern classic Annihilation comic storyline from a few years ago & it’s spinoff Annihilition: Conquest, it’s doubtful anyone would know who the Guardians were (apart from those who appeared in other Marvel titles over the years). The further risk was so drastically altering the various origins of each of the characters -especially Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Who in this film is a product of a genetic experiment but in the comic comes from a planet of anthropomorphised animals (basically taking the piss on Disney & Warner Bros cartoon short’s characters). Drax (the wrestler Dave Bautista) is also changed from a cosmically altered human to an alien, which actually works better in the context of the movie because it makes it far less human (& American) centric like sci-fi tends to be.

The film is also exceptionally funny. With many laugh out loud moments from either the character interactions, dialogue or some random sight-gag that occurs in the background. This is ultimately the strength of the film. How the humour is used & how it’s used to balance out the majority of the characters. The humour is characters use isn’t the quips of confident heroes but the self-depreciating and boastful fashion of those who are trying to cover up their pain, loss & ultimate emptiness & self-loathing at their own inadequacies.

Which leads to the other strength of the film; which is the characters.

Collectively, the team that will become known as the Guardians of the Galaxy are basic broken individuals. Without true family or friends or even homes. All of them have either been taken from somewhere or had something taken from them. They had make up for it with bravado (often which they can back up, unlike the usual sort of character) or extreme violence. They have physical & psychological flaws as well as scars (literal ones as well) & they know that they are losers as well as broken. The way they come together as a team does feel fairly natural, based upon self-interest & greed at first but blossoming into mutual respect & understanding for they have each been through.

Unfortunately, as a whole, they are not as developed as I would have preferred them to be, that is more then made up for by how natural they seem -especially being such unnatural (actually & figuratively) creatures. This is proved by how much suspension of disbelief you put into two of the characters: Rocket & Groot. The aforementioned mentioned Rocket is a small human-like Raccoon with a passion for weapons & can quickly Macguyer any sort of weapon from scrape as well as come up with complex plans on the fly; whilst his constant companion is Groot, which is a humanoid tree with incredible shapeshifting ability but a limited vocabulary (he can only say the phrase “I am Groot”). In the hands of a less director, writer & special effects team, these two characters would not only look horrid but lack any ability to garner an audiences’ sympathy & attention. Bradley Cooper makes Rocket sounds like an utterly psychotic George Costanza & whilst vin Diesel has little to say as Groot, he managed to alter his 3 word lines in such a way that they convey the immediate emotion of Groot’s intention & inner self.

Unfortunately, the more human characters aren’t rendered so well. Whilst Chris Pratt & Zoe Saldana are admirable as Peter Quill/Star-Lord & Gamora respectively they still come off as occasionally more artificial than their CGI screen companions. Part of me thinks that this is probably more to do with the Studio Execs wanting to simplify things & not spend too much time on actually character development. There are some attempts to flesh out the characters by giving them token backstories but they at least go some way to giving logic to the characters’ actions. Quill/Star-Lord was abducted from Earth immediately after his mother died of cancer & raised by space-thugs called Ravagers, lead by Yondu (who is very much modified from his heroic incarnation in the original GotG comics). He was never allowed to properly grieve or grow up, forced into a criminal life at a young age & never given any true emotional support (except for Yondu’s constant forgiveness), so Pratt plays Quill as a cross between Captain Kirk (boning all the alien babes) and Han Solo (the lovable rogue). Whilst Saldana is the emotionally vulnerable arse-kicker trying to seek revenge on the creature who turned her into a living weapon as well as destroyed her planet. She unfortunately isn’t given a flesh out or visualised backstory but Saldana (whom many know as Uhuru from the recent Star Trek reboot) tries to make her layered in her performance but is let down a bit by the script. Bautista, despite his very limited & wooden acting range, actually brings some interest to the very literal & verbose Drax. Naturally he fails to show any real emotional depth with the character but he delivers his lines with furious relish that you could see that he was having fun making the film -which I think has to do more with the physicality that he brought to the screen. You don’t really feel the weight of the pain or fury at the world that he has, which, again, is probably because of his limited acting range but the character has some pretty witty lines because he takes everything literally, failing to understand metaphors or what a turn of phrase is; quipping after being told that language goes over his head “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are to fast. I’ll catch it.”.

The action scenes are also where the film soars -be they person on person fights, group melee or CGI laden spaceship battles. Everything is shot in a way that you can see the action & who’s involved, especially when you have characters taking out multiple opponents at once across various points of the mise-en-scene. This is something that Michael fucking Bay & his cronies should learn after they butchered both the Transformers in those 4 cinematic abominations & in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ recently released film.

Unfortunately the greatest let down in the film are the villains but that seems to be pretty standard for a Marvel film unfortunately. Outside of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, I doubt anyone but the most ardent fans can really name or remember the various villains from the other Marvel films, other than the brilliant turn at the Mandarin by the usually always brilliant Ben Kingsley.

Ronan looking like an ancient Egyptian drag queen
Ronan looking like an ancient Egyptian drag queen

Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, who plays the Elf King in the recent Hobbit films) had so much potential as an antagonist because he’s depicted as a zealot who despises the recent peace treaty with Xandar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xandar but since we have no idea as to the background of this supposedly galactic war, there is no impact or threat from Ronan’s actions. There is no gravitas or true reason to his being; only words spoken, so you get no inner sense of him like you did with Loki. Even when Ronan is slamming Drax about the place, I felt no sense of action danger from him. He does have some good scenes with the mad god (though actually a powerful alien known as a Titan) Thanos (the mastermind behind the alien invasion in The Avengers), who is revealed in a greatly understated fashion (which was perfect in my view) but they all go to waste when he turns into generic universe destroying bad guy number 468 (for some random reason). The same goes for Karen Gillian (of the long legs & Doctor Who fame) as Nebula, another of Thanos adopted assassins. She’s driven by her sadism & jealous over Gamora’s position as their ‘father’s’ favourite but she barely gets any screentime, despite her awesome make-up & the fact she shaved her head for the role.

She may be bald, cybernetic & pure evil but you'd still try to bang her given half the chance
She may be bald, cybernetic & pure evil but you’d still try to bang her given half the chance

There are also lots of incidental characters & quick references -especially during the scenes in The Collector’s museum (& one that the producer Kevin Feige is connected to the next GotG film, the Infinite Gem saga & the classic character Adam Warlock). In fact, the film packs in heaps of references to the larger meta-Marvel universe as a whole, especially with the Infinite Gem mythology, adding in the god-like Celestials http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_%28comics%29, Cosmo the psychi Cosmonaut Dog & a certain anthropomorphic duck who featured in one of Marvel’s earliest, & also universally considered the worse, mainstream films. Plenty of Easter Eggs to keep the ardent fans watching it again & again but enough useful info for the lay audience to engage in the larger (mainly Jack Kirby created) Marvel Universe.

Also have to make a quick special mention of the music used within the film, which is both diegetic & non-diegetic, stemming from the mixed tape that Quill was given by his mother. The songs -many of which were overplayed in the trailer- are all 70’s pop stuff yet used to great effect. Mainly because they juxtapose the action on the screen or boost the humour content (such as with Quill’s final challenge to Ronan). The other non-diegetic music is your typical blockbuster fare but still used to good effect, adding to the mood of a scene, such as Quill & Gamora, when the acting doesn’t quiet cut it. Also, the final pre-credits scene featuring Groot & a Jackson Five song will sure to have you squeeeee.

In the end, this is a fast past, very funny film full of action & amazing looking scenes. It gets you onside enough to overlook it’s few down sides (mainly when it tries to get emotional on you). The end scenes actually hold together well but was annoyed at Gamora’s transform from an utter badarse to another (green) babe in a mini-skirt -thus diminishing her threat level (but not as much as if they put her in a mid-riff cleavage exposing top). Over all, it’s a great popcorn film that doesn’t leave you feeling mentally deadened & has enough hooks in it to make fans watch it a few more times (as well as buy the DVDs on 1st day release). I’ll no doubt go see it again, which is a rare thing for me & the cinema (mainly because it always costs so bloody much!). I only hope that Marvel Studios doesn’t rest on it laurels, making the same film over & over again until we are sick of them. Naturally a sequel is due out in 2017, which will connect up to the 3rd Avengers film (as well as all the other Marvel films due out within the next 3-4 years).

Some man-meat for the ladies.
Some man-meat for the ladies.
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2 thoughts on “How a Space Opera Should Be – Live Action Critique: Guardians of the Galaxy

  1. The Otaku Judge 09/08/2014 / 8:15 PM

    Goading Firefly fans is a dangerous game hehe. I am looking forward to this movie even though I know little about the Guardians of the Galaxy.

    Like

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