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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It’s like Shonen but not as we know it, captain – Anime Critique: Knights of Sidonia

KOS_1_CoverTitle: Knights of Sidonia (Shidonia no Kishi)
Format: TV anime
Genre: sci-fi, shonen, space opera, mecha
Series Creator:  Tsutomu Nihei
Series Director: Kobun Shizuno
Studio: Polygon Pictures
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: April 11, 2014 – June 27, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

The story follows the exploits of Nagate Tanikaze, who lived in the underground layer of Sidonia since birth, raised by his grandfather. Never having met anyone else, he trains himself in an old Guardian pilot simulator every day, eventually mastering it. After his grandfather’s death he is found by the rest of the population and selected as a Guardian pilot, in hopes of defending Sidonia from the mysterious aliens known as Gauna’s attack using all the combat expertise he learned from him.


Review:

What’s the best way to describe Knights of Sidonia?

It’s a show with a human-bear hybrid with a robot hand.

See, told you there was a bear with a robot hand!
See, told you there was a bear with a robot hand!

That’s a good start & the best way to describe the ideas involved with the series.

What instantly appealed to me about the manga when I read about it earlier in the year is how they use the notion of the post-human & the trans-human. Within the narrative universe of Knights of Sidonia, human has had to force itself to adapt in what we would consider shocking ways in order to repopulate after the seed ship Sidonia was nearly wiped up by the semi-amorphous aliens known as the Gauna. This include fusing human DNA with plant in order to use photosynthesis for sustenance to lessen the need for food production; the creation of a third gender that is able to switch to a preferred dominant gender in order to match their chosen partner/mate but they can also breed with either gender without changing their own. Cloning is also commonplace, with many clones having individual personalities despite having the same appearances.

Yet for all the interesting new sci-fi ideas, there are some tropes that the series sticks far too rigidly too.

These are mainly found within the central protagonists, Nagate, who comes out of the pretty typical Son Goku (Dragon Ball [Z]) shonen style. That is a character raised solely by a ‘grandfather’, who has no social understanding & only trained to fight finding their way back into civilisation & being pretty thick in regards to social customs & behaviours -especially around females/gender neutrals.

Despite coming from a cliched start, Nagate’s ignorance is given context; in that he was raised by his ‘grandfather’ (note or ignore repeated use of quotation marks) in the inner passages & workings of the massive starship, Sidonia, without any other human contact. Put into a Guardian (the name for their mecha units) training simulator every hour of the day, until he could beat ever virtual Gauna he fought. Yet his ‘grandfather’ dies of old age & Nagate is forced to the populated areas, where he (though actually his grandfather) is referred to as the “mole man”, in order to get food because he lacks the ability to photosynthesize. He then hurts himself & is captured, meeting various characters & rivals, before being enrolled in the Guardian academy to make use of his highly trained skills.

The academy part of KoS is interesting, because it shows that even post-humans still show intolerances for anything that is different. In Nagate’s case it’s because he lacks photosynthesis & must constantly eat, which is seen as a freakish thing by the new post-humans. Everything about him is seen as abnormal until he can prove himself, so Nagate was often at the end of beatings & abuse (some accidental) from various characters over the course of the first few episodes. Yet it remained entirely in context & was used to build the character of Nagate & the character of those around him.

Right to left: Nagata, Shizuka & Izana
Right to left: Nagata, Shizuka & Izana

In closest proximity to Nagate are his varied love interests, which, because he is a typical shonen genre male protagonist, is completely ignorant of their sexual affections for him. 1st is Shizuka, who is one of the top ranked students from the Academy, & one of the first people to show Nagate basic kindness. Next in line is the third gendered Izana, who acts as both masculine best friend & feminine emotional supports. Whilst Izana is meant to be of the third gender, it acts & looks more like a female in general & eventually starts the processes of femininisation in order to get closer to Nagate. 3rd & lastly is Yuhata, who is actually introduced a bit later in the manga, but is brought forward in the anime to be more forward in chasing Nagate because of his prodigious piloting ability, often clashing with Izana with Nagate blissfully unaware but making eyes at Shizuka.

Nagate also has rivals & antagonists. These are mainly seen in (at first) the female clone batch called the Honoka sisters, who dislike him for not being post-human but mainly because he accidentally walked into open passageway of the female changes rooms whilst the Honoka sisters were getting dressed (causing one to break his nose). Nagate’s primary rival is the arrogant & egotistical Kunato Norio, who is the heir of the prestigious Kunato family. Norio believes that he is born to win & to rule, so sees Nagate’s sudden acceptance into the academy as well as his incredible abilities as a pilot as an affront. Especially when he believes that Nagate has taken what he [Norio] deserves; being the former Ace’s Guardian unit as the affections of Shizuka. Naturally he plots to discredit Nagate & that plays ut exceptionally well over the course of the 1st half of the series.

If I were to make two major complaints they would be as follows.

In episode 5, Shizuka & Nagate are trapped floating in space after Nagate tried to rescue Shizuka after a Gauna destroyed her Guardian, leaving her floating in a protective sphere in the void. This episode whilst doing great things to build character & emotion kills all pacing that had previously been developed. It’s not a bad episode. In terms of pushing narrative & character, it is vital, it’s just really slow & a bit awkward.

My other major complaint is the animation style.

It’s that annoying cell shaded style that you see in French productions like Skyland. It’s not horrid but in the absence of cute designs, I wanted to see a more raw brutal look akin to the legendary Berserk. Yet one thing that this style of animation does well (because it utter sucks at faces & expressions) is showing how rough everything looks.

This is not a bright shiny everything new & shmick looking sci-fi. Everything from the walls to the uniforms are lived in, beaten & recycled. The pilot suits that the characters wear & scratched & dented; showing the lack of resources that Sidonia has to make anything new other than weapons & weapon parts. All to fight the perpetual war against the Gauna. The series is also very bloody & brutal, not shying about from death & maiming, especially in the outer space battles with the Gauna.

Who are the other brilliant part of the series.

the big nasty
the big nasty

Gauna are large pink lumps of creatures with massively expanding snaking tentacles (yes, hentai & all that) that can only be destroyed but a rare substance & only after their core has been exposed. They are also very adaptable creatures, able to learn from previous attacks as well as seemingly absorb humans into their bodies, transforming into monstrous gigantic images of those whom they consumed. They are so non-human yet entirely unknown. Even their motivations, with their 1st attack on Earth being speculated as a failed effort to communicate with humans, who are so vastly different from the Gauna.

The 12 episode series doesn’t get time to really explore the human/Gauna relationship, passed some very interesting ideas, so I hope that it’s something picked up in the 2nd series of the show, which airs in the last week of November this year (2014 for any readers in the relative future).

The theme by Angela is also fantastic (except for the autotune vocal part), really fits the space opera notion of the series. The ending theme is also pretty cool.

In the end, whilst it’s not as good as the original manga (mixing up some things & removing others), Knights of Sidonia stands above so many other series this past season because of it’s originality & willingness not to hand wave things. If you love you deep yet fluffy sci-fi, this is the series for you.

sidonia 01c