I don’t normally do reviews on this blog, but I had to make an exception for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s most recent summer blockbuster. First and foremost, just to get it out of the way, the movie is AWESOME — 9.9 out of 10 (and the .1 is only deducted due to the pointless post credit’s scene, but I’ll get there eventually). The second thing to know is that GotG is not, in any way, a super hero movie. It inhabits the same super-heroic setting as the rest of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, and given the presence of big-bad Thanos in the film, I am sure it’s plot will tie directly into said universe (my guess is it comes to a head in Avengers 3). Guardians is a science fiction movie. More specifically, it is a big dumb Space Opera populated by planet destroying super weapons, ships the size of cities and mining colonies in the severed skulls of cosmic beings.
ALso, I suppose I should give a good old fashioned SPOILER WARNING: I will be speaking freely about plot elements from the film.
Guadians opens with perhaps the saddest introduction since Up! by Pixar: young Peter Quill is present when his mother dies of cancer and is so distraught by her passing that he runs away from the hospital. Until the very end of the film, this is not only the most powerful emotional moment of the film, but arguably the only emotional moment of the film. Even so, it serves to establish a powerful motivation in the character of Peter Quill/Starlord for making many of the decisions he makes in the film, without seeming overwrought or silly. I went to see the film with my son, who is about the same apparent age as the young Peter and found myself choked up at the idea of having to say goodbye to him in that way. It was simple but also powerful. That scene ends with the boy being abducted by an alien craft, and from there the fun begins.
I want to be clear about this: Guardians of the Galaxy is, above all, a fun movie. It is a big summer tent pole sci-fi-action-comedy with a budget bigger than the GDP of some countries. Nary a mention is made of how all these weird alien species apparently speak English as a universal language, nor should it. There is nothing in the construction of the civilization as we are shown it that makes any sense in a “hard sci-fi” kind of way, and this is a feature, not a bug. Space Opera has been stagnant in cinema since the original Star Wars trilogy, populated either by poor imitators (including the Prequel Trilogy, IMO) or deconstructionists. Guardians of the Galaxy embraces is big dumb space opera roots unapologetically and in doing so creates some of the best space opera ever depicted on film.
The other thing about GotG is that not only is it fun, it is funny. While appropriate for most kids in the 10+ range, it is just profane enough to give it an adolescent sensibility. The main character of Peter Quill/Starlord is a rogue through and through, including criminal activity and debonair womanizing, but both are merely suggested at. Much of the humor comes from the inherent ridiculousness of the characters — a walking and talking tree than can only speak three words, a cybernetic raccoon bounty hunter, a femme fatale assassin turned good, and a musclebound seeker of vengeance incapable of understanding or communicating in anything but the literal — but never turns any of them into a clown. There is no C3PO in this movie, and for that I am grateful. Secondary and side characters are treated with the same degree of quasi-seriousness: they are often quirky and strange, but never stupid.
The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy is fairly straight forward. Multiple groups are after an orb of (at first) unknown nature, including the main villain Ronan the Accuser (played with grandeur by Lee Pace, currently of Halt and Catch Fire) who has a grudge against the planet Xandar and wants to basically kill everything. People are willing to pay for the orb, thus driving much of the action by our “heroes” and it is eventually revealed that the orb contains an Infinity Stone. This is the part that is going to eventually bring Thanos to bear against the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the context of GotG suffice it to say that Ronan really, really wants it — and manages to get it, in one of those interesting story decisions that happens in movies sometimes, which in this case totally worked. One of the nice things about Ronan as a villain is just how bad-ass he is, so powerful that none of the heroes pose a threat to him. Of course, they do defeat him eventually, with something that looks like a bit of deus ex machina if you weren’t paying attention at the beginning of the film, but even in doing so he is never diminished. I personally hate it when a villain is supposed to be extremely powerful, but just a little extra effort because they really really mean it by the heroes is enough to defeat the villain. That doesn’t happen here and it is refreshing.
The movie is fast paced and clever with big explosions and striking visuals. I saw it in digital, without either IMAX or 3D and never really felt like there were scenes foisted upon me to fulfill the ticket prices of those formats. Nonetheless, it was beautifully rendered and the different environments were given distinct visual styles (very important in space opera).
The only failure of the film, in my opinion, was the post-credits scene. Marvel has taken pains to train us to sit through the credits and expect something of value, or at least something clever and worth the three to five minute wait while scores of stuntmen and digital artist names scroll by. I won’t spoil the post credit scene for GotG, but I will say, “Don’t bother.” Once the scroll starts, you are free to leave and can Google the scene spoilers on the way home. It will be faster and you will miss nothing of value.
Overall, I think GotG qualifies as the second best sci-fi film of the summer (the winner is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — that movie is just great) and the best space-opera since Return of the Jedi. Go see it.