6 August 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, Marvel Studios, 2014)


Guardians of the Galaxy 
2014, 121mins, 12
Director: James Gunn
Writer (s): James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Cast includes: Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan
UK Release Date: 31st July 2014 

What would happen if The Avengers had an orgy in the cockpit of The Millennium Falcon?

This might as well be the creative quandary at the heart of James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”. For their tenth outing, Marvel Studios had promised something different with “Guardians”, drawing on lesser known material and hiring a director associated with off-colour splat-pieces like 2006’s “Slither”. The result encompasses a gorgeously detailed bunch of outlaws and only slightly better than average (but wholly rudimentary) genre plotting. Some of Gunn’s penchant for darkness has been preserved, and he treats his characters with refreshing intelligence and care, but ultimately the work descends into the same MacGuffin hunt formula that Marvel demands on practicing annually. Watching the titular characters grow and interact is a joy, but Gunn’s picture doesn’t offer enough on a storytelling level to incur more than moderate cheer.

One time occupant of Earth turned intergalactic bandit Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself in possession of a coveted orb. Whilst trying to pawn the piece on Xandar, Quill runs afoul of Kree mercenary Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and a pair of unusual bounty-hunters; a tempestuous raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his simple associate Groot (Vin Diesel). After a brief skirmish, all four are arrested, placed in a remote space-prison where they encounter vengeful Drax (Dave Bautista). With Kree psychopath Ronan (Lee Pace) intent on attaining the orb for genocide, the newly formed Guardians plot an escape, reluctantly accepting the responsibility of protecting Xandar along the way.

“Guardians” is an exceptionally cast blockbuster. There are very few obvious choices amid the eclectic thespians attached to the project, but each proves themselves adept in unpredictable ways. The newly buffed-up Pratt moves away from TV’s Andy Dwyer to channel Harrison Ford. Thankfully he never coasts on a slavish Han Solo impersonation, taking the sci-fi icon’s gentle charm and infusing it with a unique neurosis and discontentment. Gunn has always dealt predominantly with outsiders, and Quill is the quintessential example, a charismatic goof disengaged by his confused past and thinly disguised melancholy. He’s a rootless hero, deprived of a home, and this shines through in Pratt’s sympathetic characterisation. He may not steal as many scenes as Cooper’s easily aggravated Rocket or Bautista’s droll Drax, but he’s the beating heart of Gunn’s opera. If you’d suggested the notion of “Andyana Jones” to fans of “Parks & Recreation” in 2010, they’d have smelt a cheap DVD extra. Yet in 2014 here we are with the real thing, and it’s damn credible.

Of course Pratt is just one piece in the impressive ensemble, all brought to life through Gunn’s snappy penmanship and ability to write entertaining scenes in which characters simply talk. It’s an underrated skill - Joss Whedon possesses it - but not all Marvel films have evidenced the same degree of confidence with basic character interaction. Indeed the levels of nuance and pop in these moments actually serve to underline the shortcomings of the central narrative, which devolves into a generic chase feature. The personality and quick-wittedness of Gunn’s dialogue sits at odds with the safe storytelling, and the less than imposing antagonist. I appreciate that Ronan’s end-goal is plenty evil, but Pace’s colourless performance and Gunn’s disinterest in him render the villain wet. He’s never scary and when the film slows to focus on his scheming, it grinds to a halt, slackening under the lack of spark. Even Ronan’s lair, a gigantic space-craft, has little of the imagination evident in most other aspects of the production design. If a hero is only as good as his nemesis, then the Guardians have been short-changed on their debut voyage. As Ronan’s sidekick Karen Gillan is much more intimidating, all piercing angles and inhumane snarls, but unfortunately, at least for now, Gunn has limited use for her.

The amalgamation of physical and digital sets is staggeringly good, one often completely indistinguishable from the other. Of course for a film costing $170 million this should be standard (sadly it isn’t), but the craft and thought poured into the various environments is definitely worthy of applause. From the opening credits, set on the desolate planet of Morag, Gunn sets a high standard of visual polish, filling the environment with smart, seemingly unrelated fine-brushing, the sort which lesser film-makers would view as surplus to requirement. It’s in these touches that Gunn’s picture achieves maybe the greatest sense of aesthetic cohesion in a Marvel work since 2011’s “Captain America:  The First Avenger”, creating a distinct world and set of expectations on which to hinge the action. The over-arching politics and geography of the universe remain foggy (I thought Peace Treaty subplots had been outlawed in sci-fi since 1999?), but it’s nothing a sequel couldn’t smooth over.

And a sequel is coming. The end credits suggest “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return”, but a $94 million opening weekend in the States all but cements the fact.  Gunn’s distinct brand of humour and proclivity for strong characters has seemingly overridden the film’s formulaic backbone (or perhaps enhanced it), drawing a favourable audience response over the weekend past. I myself took to seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy” twice, but it seems my initial reaction was the correct one. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is tremendous fun, but not as daring as those previously aware of Gunn’s oeuvre might have predicted. It’s a magnificently shot and beautifully acted event-flick, but maybe a cut below the summer’s very best mainstream fare. Still, as I said before, it’s nothing a Gunn-ier follow-up wouldn't improve.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014 


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