There’s a couple of things that puzzle me about Marvel’s latest cinematic blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy: why it’s been quite so phenomenally popular, and why I didn’t personally like it more than I did when I finally got around to watching the Blu-ray over Christmas.
Although Marvel’s famous comic book superhero franchises have proved to be a license to print money in recent years thanks to the studio’s canny strategy of weaving the tales of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and co. around periodic tent pole Avengers gatherings by using S.H.I.E.L.D. as TV crazy glue to keep all the parts stuck together, this new film is a very different beast indeed. Remaining outside the current established Marvel Cinema Universe continuity for the time being at least, there are no superheroes in the traditional comic book sense; indeed many comic book fans – even avid ones – won’t have been familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy before this. I confess, I’d never heard of them until the movie came along, while all the other Marvel films to date have been based on comic books that were a big part of my childhood reading when I was growing up (admittedly a very long time ago!)
Instead of superheroes in masks and lycra, what Guardians of the Galaxy gives us is big old classic pulpy space opera on the grandest of scales. That sounds like it should be no problem, given that Hollywood has been pumping out science fiction films for decades now, surely? But such films have been remarkably narrow in scope, tending either towards the aforementioned superhero fantasies, or earthbound dystopias like The Hunger Games, or films in which aliens and monsters make their way to modern day Earth to trash New York City, or else films in which we tag along with explorers from Earth as they boldly go exploring into deep space while retaining some baseline point of human audience identification. Films which do away entirely with that baseline and go full space opera – David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune for example, or Andrew Stanton’s earnest but fatally flawed take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series with John Carter of Mars, or David Twohy’s trilogy of original Riddick films – tend to flop badly at the box office unless they’re basically old school horror films decked out in SF attire such as the Alien franchise. Even there, things can quickly run off the rails as Ridley Scott found when he dared try something a little more fully SF with Prometheus. Of course, the reason why everyone keeps trying to pull off the full space opera gambit all the same is that the one film to successfully buck the trend – Star Wars in 1977 – did so with rather spectacular and industry-changing results. However such films usually fall into a morass of silly-sounding character, place and planet names and various science fiction high concepts that either explode your brain or set your eyes rolling with the inanity of it all. Even Joss Whedon couldn’t pull it off when he tried this sort of thing on TV as the shortlived Firefly space western (it’s surely no coincidence that the show’s star Nathan Fillion has a vocal cameo in Guardians?)
Actually Guardians does have a couple of minutes on a recognisable modern (well, 1988) Earth at the very beginning, as we see a young Peter Quill abducted by a spaceship just minutes after the death of his mother from cancer. However we quickly jump forward a quarter of a century and the next time we catch up with a grown-up Quill (now played by Chris Pratt) he’s fully immersed in his adopted alien setting and only nominally human at all – except that is for his relic of a Sony Walkman that he’s kept with him all through the years. It’s this and his selection of mix tapes of 70s dance music that is his (and our) only connection back to Earth for the rest of the film; and it’s this that is the film’s one indisputable stroke of genius as the film gets the oddest, most inappropriate and without question wildly successful music soundtracks of any blockbuster of modern times. The opening credits sequence alone, which feature Quill enacting a heist while disco dancing to Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love”, contains more laugh-out-loud moments in four minutes than pretty much any entire film of any genre that I’ve seen in the last decade, and while the rest of the movie doesn’t come close to matching this early achievement the accent that the mix tapes provide nonetheless continues to enrich the next two hours beyond sense or reason.
The other big factor in why the film works is Pratt himself, seemingly having dropped out of TV sitcom land and arrived in Guardians fully formed as a warm and charismatic action movie star. He totally carries the film with a wry grin and easy confidence, whereas by contrast his co-star Zoe Saldana (who reports for duty with oodles of blockbuster franchise experience under her belt courtesy of Avatar, Star Trek and The Pirates of the Caribbean) is oddly blank in the female lead role of Gamora, unable to overcome the limits of an underwritten role that essentially requires her to be the dramatic straight person to Pratt’s more eyecatching comedy antics. The same fate could almost have befallen the character of Drax the Destroyer who is essentially the silent but deadly strongman of the Guardians of the Galaxy quintet, and certainly fans were worried when they learned that the part had gone to a WWE/MMA competitor with limited acting experience. Happily in this case the writers have worked well to play to Dave Bautista’s strengths as a performer, and the end result is that Drax ends up becoming one of the film’s genuine unexpected successes.
The final two Guardians are both CGI creations, but we’ve come a long way from the likes of Jar-Jar Binks and both the genetically augmented racoon Rocket and the tree-of-few-words Groot are flawlessly executed, with Bradley Cooper having a riot providing the voice of the former and Vin Diesel proving unexpectedly adept and subtle at saying the line “I am Groot” in dozens of different ways to suit all occasions. Both characters quickly break free of their CGI roots and soon establish themselves as proper personalities on a par with their human counterparts, and kids will undoubtedly love them; but to be honest I felt a little cool towards them and got a distinct sense that they had been artificially and every so slightly cynically fashioned from the ground up by writer/director James Gunn with the express intention of fuelling millions of dollars worth of merchandising sales. Still, you can’t blame him for that – it certainly worked in George Lucas’ favour with the original Star Wars trilogy. And at the end of the day, you’d have to have a very hard heart indeed not to succumb to Groot’s wide-eyed childish charms.
The film relies heavily for its success on this light hearted banter and comedy interactions of this core cast. As for the story into which they are thrust – I don’t have a clue. Seriously. I tried very hard for the first hour to keep straight who was with whom and what was going on where, but in the end I got a headache and gave up – and as far as I can tell it made absolutely no difference to the film watching experience when I did. Essentially, Quill steals an orb which proves to be a weapon of unimaginable power which means every villain in the galaxy is out to kill him to get their hands on it: among those in the running are Michael Rooker, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan and Josh Brolin but don’t ask me to tell you how these characters fit together in any detail. Will Quill sell out, or will he end up instead helping save world-in-peril Nova which is ruled over by Glenn Close, looking here as though she’s been styled by Tim Burton in a parody of a The Hunger Games politician? I’m not going to spoiler it for you, but if you can’t see exactly where the film is heading a long time before it arrives at its destination then you really need to read more.
In the end, the answer comes in a riot of head-splitting FX work which is without question state-of-the-art and utterly flawless, inspired production design ensuring a truly jaw-dropping spectacle from start to finish. I’m sure it looks even better in 3D if your system is so enabled, but I was just fine with the 2D version which looked superb in the high definition of Blu-ray. Disney (Marvel’s parent company these days) has always been one of the very best home entertainment distributors when it comes to the video and audio quality of its releases, and that holds absolutely true here – although the slow tapering off of their interest in providing noteworthy extra special features is sadly equally apparent as well.
So having given Guardians of the Galaxy a pretty positive review, why is it that I myself came away from watching the film for the first time over Christmas somewhat underwhelmed and with an overall rating of a mere three-stars in my head? Maybe it’s that old chestnut about failing to manage expectations – of allowing the massively positive advance hype to lead me to expect more than is reasonable from any movie; or perhaps the middle of the festive season with all its gaudy distractions isn’t the best time to be making the first acquaintance of a film of this kind? Maybe I simply need to sit down and watch it in more optimal conditions how the decorations are down and the normality of a grey January has asserted itself? Or perhaps it’s a case that I’m simply increasingly bored with and resistant to the charms of what passes for big blockbuster entertainment these days. As these films get ever bigger, more spectacular and outrageously expensive so it seems I find it harder to connect with them. All the never-ending franchises blur together and just become more of the same to the degree where I’m so massively far behind on my Marvel Cinema Universe watching I can’t imagine ever catching up and being in sync again in my lifetime. I couldn’t even face going to the cinema to see the last offering of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien outings in December, because I simply couldn’t stomach another helping of hobbit. Not even a waffer-thin one.
If that’s truly the heart of the issue behind my ennui and general level of disinterest then it’s to the credit of Guardians of the Galaxy that I responded as positively as I did to it in the circumstances. I certainly admired the fact that it was trying to do something different, that it wasn’t just relying on the same old tried and tested superhero favourites but was instead trying something risky – something that could very easily have lost Marvel (and Disney) a huge pile of money if it had backfired as badly as John Carter did. It’s certainly a film I will watch again, not least thanks to the music soundtrack and Pratt’s central performance; maybe I’ll get the hang of the plot the next time around, or maybe I won’t bother, and in any case plot seems something of an optional extra to films these days so maybe I’m just worrying about something I should know to leave well alone. Or maybe it’s just time for me to go back to my DVD collection and pull out some classics from a period when such things did matter, and wrap myself up in the warm blanket of nostalgia and leave the new-fangled modern cinema to the kids who ‘get it’ – or alternatively, perhaps who in crotchety old man vernacular simply ‘know no better’!
Guardians of the Galaxy is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D and for online download.