Thursday, August 07, 2014

I am Groot

Who would have thought that Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a big “what the hell are Marvel thinking?” when it was first announced as part of Phase II, would turn out to be far and away one of their most entertaining and successful films? This is, after all, a movie based on a comic book most people have never heard of and includes among its cast a talking raccoon and a walking tree. Kudos to Marvel then for allowing former Troma filmmaker James Gunn to make an idiosyncratic movie that would fit right at home with some of the weirder sci-fi movies from the 80’s, while still offering the spectacle and fast-paced action that modern audiences crave.

The film’s cold open is not what you would expect – a quiet scene of young Peter Quill watching his mother give him one final present before dying in a hospital bed. This emotional scene ends with Peter getting abducted by aliens. Cut to 26 years later and Quill (now trying and mostly failing to get everyone to call him Star-Lord) is stealing a precious alien artifact as a sort of intergalactic Indiana Jones (if Jones carried a Walkman with awesome 70’s pop hits on it). This is the kick-off for a convoluted plot that finds Quill being arrested along with four other “usual suspects”: Gamora, a green-skinned assassin; Drax the Destroyer (who looks and acts like you’d expect from the name); Rocket Raccoon (aww, a cute little critter with a big gun) and Groot, Rocket’s plant-based muscle who only ever says the same three words.

Somehow these five misfits eventually find themselves protecting the galaxy from Ronan the Accuser, an evil Kree who has one of those all-powerful Infinity stones that they keep hinting at in various Marvel movies. But the plot is pretty unimportant. What really makes this move work (much like Whedon’s Avengers) is the characterization. All of the characters are interesting, lovable and funny in their own way, and seeing them come together is a thrill even for non-comic fans. Gunn does such a good job with the character development (even throwing in some genuinely emotional beats) and humour that I can even forgive the generic sky battle at the end (the same sort of studio mandated final act spectacle that almost undid all the good work done in the first two acts of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The film creates a genuine emotional connection even with minor characters such as the Nova Corps pilots who sacrifice themselves to slow down Ronan’s attack on their homeworld. Even the standard showdown has some surprises - there are very few movies that can have their hero in a dance-off with the big bad at the end and still work.

The films looks beautiful, full of colorful characters and wild locations. Even the post-converted 3D isn’t bad. Tyler Bates' score is loud but unmemorable, though the choice of music on Quill's awesome mix makes up for it.

All of the actors are perfectly cast. Chris Pratt has enough charm to make Quill likeable (even when he starts out as a womanizing prick). Wrestler Dave Bautista brings both empathy and humour to his literal-minded character of Drax, who is consumed by revenge. Bradley Cooper is the perfect voice for Rocket, who gets many of the film’s best lines. Vin Diesel brings depth to Groot by finding as many ways as possible to say “I am Groot” (which is no surprise to fans of his Iron Giant). Lee Pace is menacing as Ronan, even if his character is underwritten (a flaw shared with many Marvel villains). Of the supporting cast, Michael Rooker and John C. Reilly are the standouts.

The only disappointing aspect of the film is the treatment of the female characters. Zoe Saldana looks awesome and kicks ass as Gamora, but she has the least well-defined arc of the Guardians (she turns from evil to good far too early in the movie). There’s also a problematic scene where Drax randomly calls her a “whore” for no reason (far more offensive than the “mewling quim” line in Avengers that got people so worked up). Couple this with the news that Gamora has been excluded from much of the film’s merchandise, and it’s no surprise that Marvel has yet to make a female-led superhero movie.

My favourite Doctor Who companion, Karen Gillan, is also under-utilized as Nebula. She’s basically the Darth Maul of the movie - looks cool and has a kickass fight scene – but more depth should have been given to her character, especially since she and Gamora are both daughters of Thanos.

Speaking of the big T, we see slightly more of him in this movie (voiced by the suitable gravelly Josh Brolin) and while it’s fun to see the pieces start to fall together for his eventual confrontation with the Avengers, hopefully they’ll improve his CG before he takes a central role. One cameo I won’t spoil is the character that appears after the end credits, except to say that it’s a fun callback to the very first big screen Marvel movie.

Overall this is a fun, thrilling and often moving adventure that shows any comic character can work on screen if the filmmakers put their heart into it. It’s not just DC that has to be afraid of Marvel. JJ Abrams has his work cut out for him in trying to create a space adventure that will top this.