Defenders of insulting dreck like Transformers and Battleship always present their opening statement with "Why are you thinking too hard while criticizing these films? These are dumb popcorn movies where you’re supposed to check your brain at the door and enjoy yourself." However, I come from the understanding that every film, regardless of genre or context, should adhere to certain standards while creating what it tries to convey.
So to those without a discerning eye towards dumb popcorn special effects extravaganzas, I’d like to present Evidence A, Guardians of the Galaxy. THIS is how you construct a sci-fi action/adventure that tries nothing more than to entertain its audience with every frame without underestimating the intelligence of said audience. THIS is how you combine a big-budget special effects summer blockbuster product while maintaining an original voice and constructing an intriguing and genuinely fun story. THIS is Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s nothing short of a modern sci-fi space adventure masterpiece.
After a tragic event in his childhood, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is kidnapped by aliens and becomes a narcissistic galactic thief during the following twenty years. He gets in big trouble after he swipes a mysterious orb with extraordinary powers (What mysterious orb doesn’t?) and is hunted by Ronan (Lee Pace), who wants to use the orb’s power to wipe out a majority of the universe. Ronan sends his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has her own plans about the orb, after Quill.
A team of bounty hunters consisting of a talking raccoon with a Napoleon complex named Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a self-healing benign tree named Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel, channeling his work from The Iron Giant) botch an attempt to capture Quill and the entire gang is sent to prison. After breaking out with help from Drax (Dave Bautista), a metaphor-impaired muscular alien hell-bent on exacting revenge from Ronan, the team has to find a way to set aside their selfishness in order to save the galaxy.
Co-writer and director James Gunn proves himself to be the perfect choice to adapt such a tongue-in-cheek comic book space adventure property about five misfits protecting the galaxy from the evils of the universe. He has a unique knack for exploiting the confines of a genre while turning its clichés upside down in his own way. His latest, Super, was about the real violence that could result from an ordinary citizen turning himself into a superhero.
As gritty and gory as the film’s tone was, Gunn still found a way to mold it into a typical superhero movie structure, complete with animated opening credits and an origin story that takes up almost the first two acts. It was as if Gunn was teaching a lesson to Kick-Ass, which tried a similar approach and failed miserably.
Working with a budget at least a hundred times bigger than Super, Gunn brings a seldom-seen amount of originality and energy to the classic space adventure while fully understanding and accepting the PG-13 confines of the Marvel Universe. On the surface, Guardians of the Galaxy manages to capture the awe and excitement of the original Star Wars trilogy with impressive colorful visual effects and design work, dialogue full of witty banter and a classic story about heroes fighting against the bad guys at all costs.
In fact, I could not help but lament the fact that this was the kind of fun, breezy space opera we deserved from the disappointing Star Wars prequels. If you ignore the lack of Jedis and the kind of language that would never fly in the Star Wars universe, it’s not that hard to consider Guardians of the Galaxy as an unofficial Star Wars spinoff.
After delivering the base requirements of the genre with exquisite attention to detail, Gunn manages to inject his own brand of humor and energy into the project without tipping it into meta parody territory. He finds ways of subverting our expectations of the genre, from the somber opening scene that might make a chunk of the audience think they’ve entered the wrong film for a couple of minutes, to the third act’s typical giant bad guy ships vs. whimsical good guy ships battle that could have settled into generic visuals, but finds a way to maintain its creativity until the very last frame.
Instead of resting on his laurels and letting the expensive CGI do all of the hard work, Gunn manages to inject unique voices and characteristics to all five of our heroes. Drax’s inability to understand poetic language creates some of the most amusing banter. Even a character who looks like he was inserted into the story as mere comic relief shows some depth during a surprisingly emotional monologue. The ability to extract this much sympathy for a walking tree whose sole linguistic skill is to be able to say his own name deserves a standing ovation on its own.
Even during its most stylized moments, Gunn never takes the material too seriously and invites us to join in on the fun while becoming carefree children again, enjoying an old-fashioned space adventure with infinite creativity. Even the so-called charismatic slow motion hero shots come with their own brand of tongue-in-cheek humor, as you can see one of the characters yawning while another readjusts his crotch. The soundtrack chock full of 70s and 80s pop hits organically inserted into the story provides the cherry on top.
Even while it’s exploiting the most tired clichés of the genre, Guardians of the Galaxy is always fresh and fun. It provides the perfect ending to an already impressive summer blockbuster line-up that seems to go out of its way to apologize for last year’s abysmal summer season.