I have no intention of spoiling any details, jokes or events of this film so the following review will stick to allusions and a generalised examination.
My grandfather had the greatest impact on my love for sci-fi. He had a towering floor to ceiling bookshelf, divided into three sections: mysteries, war, and sci-fi. The former two did little for me, but I’ll never forget those sci-fi covers, Panther editions especially. It took many years for my reading level to catch up enough to finally begin reading them, but those covers, from E.E ‘Doc’ Smith through Robert Heinlein and unto Asimov’s Robots, are ingrained in my psyche; giant robots, strange alien trees, spacecraft in shapes that spoke to some strange lizard brain mythology. Today I saw a film that understood the allure of those images, and captured the complex strange world from which they sprang.
James Gunn and Marvel have landed the pop culture dart fair and square on a certain conception of sci-fi with their latest film, Guardians of the Galaxy. It is termite art, ravenous and alive with a vision of mayhem and madness as a stoic few stand in the last rays of a dying sun. Well, no dying suns here, but a floating world built within the decapitated head of an ancient celestial being will suffice. This film pulls at the roots of modern sci-fi, unearthing it in a way that makes most other epic sci-fi look like a faded photocopy.
There is a grandeur to the world created here that is rarely seen in live action cinema. Star Wars is a vapid reference point, too controlled to truly feel like the mad universe we inhabit. The early, ground-breaking beauty and imagination that elevated The Lord of the Rings above its generic bedfellows is a closer touchstone, with its rabbit-hole mythic possibilities and prodigious attention to detail. Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel universe like an exploding star, with myriad particle trails to follow into a wealth of potentiality. It makes the majority of the Marvel films feel as if the conflicts were fought between opposing coffee shops on a grey suburban street. It is Heavy Metal pulp heaven, a visual work of art.
Director and co-writer James Gunn’s fingerprints are clearly present without ever becoming obtrusive. All of the diverse elements mix, from the sci-fi history and Marvel Universe mythos through to the often bizarrely intense violence and not-quite-right-in-the-head sense of humour. Gunn’s career is schizophrenically diverse; beginning with scripting duties on the Troma/Shakespeare classic Tromeo and Juliet (if you ever wanted to see Lemmy from Motorhead reading Shakespeare and Juliet turning into a mutant cow to escape the sexual abuse of her father, this is the film for you), and rising to the heights of studio reboots as scripter on Scooby Doo (part one AND part two) and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, before going sideways once again as writer/director of the brilliant Slither and Super. His selection for Guardians is simultaneously instantly understandable and totally perplexing, but nonetheless a brilliant decision.
Gunn has a wonderful skill for colliding emotional content, thematic nuance, and deranged humour/violence without dropping a beat. Guardians of the Galaxy represents a confident and intelligent filmmaker having a gargantuan load of fun. Spectacle is deployed with a lightness of touch that would seem impossible in such a baroque fantasy. Action scenes are directed with clarity and an intent that obviously holds the continuing narrative as paramount, aiming for brevity instead of bloating. In addition he has brought a wealth of excellent actors to the table. His regular stable of performers (including a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman!) fit into this universe with aplomb, especially Michael Rooker who commands the screen every time he appears. Highlights include John C. Reilly bringing a touch of his Magnolia cop to the table and Lee Pace shaming almost every other Marvel villain with his soulless destruction. The Guardians themselves are a joy, each firmly inhabited by a terrific performer who absolutely nails it.
It is the characters that ground all this eccentricity, holding the flights of fantasy firmly within an everyday conception which we can identify and understand. The Guardians are powerfully engaging, complicated and emotional characters with the best and worst of intentions. Their individual alienness is allowed to breathe; these are characters from different worlds and multiculturalism is never easy! They could not exist in any universe but this one, and yet they do not feel far removed from our own existence, our own struggles.
Individual narratives are alluded to, sketched in with brilliantly realised and highly evocative details. The post-modern pop culture references of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) are an easy but no less entertaining access point, while Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper voicing the scientifically modified Racoon) past is given a brutal realisation through associations with the violence of animal experimentation. This association is never played cheaply; it feeds into a powerful emotional core that often overflows, lifting the film up when it threatens to sag.
The first third has a worn feel, like another wintry Monday rolling around just like the last dozen. Even as a (relatively) stand alone film it is impossible to disconnect our expectations from all that has come before, and from all we dream of what may yet come. Expectations will muddle this film to begin with, but like a tremendous weightlifter shrugging off gravity to reach for the heavens, well, Guardians just needs time to find its own footing. In this way the arc of the film’s progression matches precisely with the arc of the characters. Their arc is the film’s arc, opening up, growing in confidence and power as they begin to connect and all of the pieces lock into place.
When we first meet the assorted Guardians of the Galaxy they are all trapped, locked down & isolated by their situation. This reduces them, and problematises our engagement with them. Much as their own interconnections do not come easily, so does the audience’s connection take time to warm up. We are introduced to these characters as people who do not like to communicate. Like I said, locked down. But getting to know them isn’t exactly the point here. Growing to understand their decisions is the point. These are characters being pulled along in the wake of history, and it is the choices they make now that are more important than where they have come from. This works wonderfully as it does not allow the film to get bogged down in shop-worn Origins with-a-capital-O. The desire to help people and do the right thing is paramount and utilised in a way that few superhero films successfully achieve without falling into preachy navel-gazing.
This is powerfully clever cinema that very comfortably and justifiably leaves the audience wanting more. Any shortcomings in character arcs can be excused as this is but one part of their story, a brief two hours in their lives, with much more yet to come. If you are going to build an expansive, serial universe, THIS is how you do it. With joy, with heart, with intelligence and imagination. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is immensely pleasurable cinema.
By Ben Buckingham
Director: James Gunn
Writer(s): James Gunn & Nicole Perlman (screenplay
Starring: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Dave Bautista
Runtime: 121 minutes
Release date(s): USA: August 1 2014; Australia & New Zealand: August 7 2014