Wednesday 6 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Yesterday I read the somewhat surprising statistic that Guardians Of The Galaxy had the third highest grossing opening weekend of the year so far, after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Transformers: Age Of Extinction. This is both easy to believe and kind of puzzling.

Colour Me Puzzled
Okay, so Marvel Studios' offerings are reliably good and even when I've called one weak (Thor: The Dark World springs to mind) they've been entertaining. There has always been the suspicion, though, that maybe their success is partially because they were presented as a serial. These films are split into phases that culminate in an Avengers film, the first Captain America movie was subtitled The First Avenger to stress this and directly lead into Avengers Assemble. Avengers Assemble was a huge film, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is going to be a huge film and people now know that they “should” watch Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier and The Dark World to get the full experience.

Guardians Of The Galaxy doesn't have that, in theory. Yes, a recurring MacGuffin introduced in The Dark World makes an appearance, as do characters from Avengers Assemble and Dark World post-credits teasers but neither of these was advertised. What's more, the characters in this film just aren't known in the popular culture. We comic geeks know the Guardians as quirky fan-favourites but your average man on the street? Nothing, I'd bet. Captain America? Pop culture icon, often misunderstood as a character but a famous image. Iron Man and the Hulk have both had cartoons people my age would remember not to mention the well-remembered Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk live-action series. And Thor is, well... a mythological figure practically anyone in the Western world will have at least heard of.

Hell, August isn't even a month usually associated with big openings since most people in the northern hemisphere are too busy enjoying barbecue weather. This is genuinely the first Marvel Studios film in years that has had to sell itself purely on the studio's reputation. The trailers pretty much emphasis three things:

1. It's Marvel Studios, you know you can trust them.
2. It's space opera, maybe you like the genre and did we mention how our parent company has the Star Wars license these days?
3. Raccoon with a chuff-off big gun.

This film was trading on the reputation built up by the Marvel films over the last few years and it totally, totally lives up to that rep.

Come And Get Your Love
Back on topic, let's talk about the soundtrack first because it is a stroke of absolute genius. The initial set-up is that Peter Quill is abducted by aliens as a child in 1986 on the day his mother dies. His only real possession at that moment is a cassette walkman and a mixtape of '60s and '70s hits his mother made for him. We get a classic action movie suiting up scene for the Guardians set to The Runaways' Cherry Bomb, a prison break runs to the lyrics of Escape but not just any old song called “Escape”, its the one better known as “The Pina Colada Song”. Best of all are the opening titles because you think you know what you're getting there:

Peter Quill, now an adult space adventurer in a red leather trenchcoat and techy accoutrements that John Crichton would envy, walks across a desolate alien landscape with ruins in the distance. So far, so space opera, right? Then he takes off his space mask, puts on his earphones and Redbone's Come And Get Your Love starts up. He dances across the screen, disco slides, picks up an alien lizard-rat-thing and uses it as a hair-brush microphone! It is gorgeous.

Every one of these songs accompanies a scene it is completely unsuited to on paper and yet fits perfectly in practice.

Character, Visuals and Spiritual Succession
Star Wars is an obvious influence and not just because a couple of Lucasfilm companies were involved in production and we're blatantly looking at a tech demo for Disney's Episode VII. Guardians Of The Galaxy cleaves to that classic Star Wars formula of switching locations every twenty minutes or so to present you with another set of fantastic visuals and new dangers to fling its character into at high speed. It's not the only influence, though.

Quill himself, as a character, owes a lot to Farscape's John Crichton but he isn't a straight lift. For a start he isn't an entirely modern man thrust into the fantastic, he's grown up in space and is far more adjusted to it than Crichton ever was. Also, Crichton was a character who embodied the One Sane Man trope so he could comment on the absurdities of his world and here Peter Quill is as crazy and sci-fi as everyone else. If the film has a One Sane Man it is, without a doubt, Rocket Raccoon.

No, I'm perfectly serious. Almost every one of Bradley Cooper's lines is comedy gold and half of them are exasperated comments on the other members of the cast. This is clearly a character who lives his life in a constant state of “Oh God, what now?” but we get enough evidence of other emotions that he doesn't seem two-dimensional. Hell, he even has a speech I found emotionally affecting, I was close to tearing up because it frankly touches on issues of bullying that are somewhat close to my heart.

I wasn't actually tearing up, though, that was reserved for a certain moment in the final act with Groot.

Oh yes, and if it seemed to you a waste of time and effort on Marvel's part to employ Vin Diesel to do mo-cap and voice-acting for Groot I assure you it was money well-spent. I've never been a great believer in CGI over physical effects but Rocket and Groot are so well-realised and so well-acted (yes, I am applying the tag of acting to the process that brings Groot to life) I'm confident they'll be just as big breakout characters with the film audience as they were with comic fans.

Talking of big fellas: Dave Bautista, better known to me as The Monster Batista of WWE fame. Of all the characters Drax has changed the most between page and screen: he's no longer an augmented human but an alien from a very literal-minded race who don't understand metaphors, similes or anything of the like. The jokes are obvious and you see almost all of them coming but Bautista plays it so straight and with such conviction its endearing. And again, there's a speech that paints him as more than the 2D brawler he might be assumed to be.

Zoe Saldana rounds out the cast as Gamorra and adding green to the list of colours she's been in space. She's probably the least served by the script, if I'm being honest, as unlike the others her character starts off complex and we don't really get the easy hook for her before we're plunged into her backstory and the complexities of her motivations. None of this is bad, exactly, but the other characters benefit from a more leisurely introduction.

Thrown together they bicker, they talk at cross purposes, they get on each others' tits and, of course, they save the universe. Star Wars, Farscape and Firefly have all used this sort of formula for the simple reason that it works but none of the comparisons exactly matches. Starlord might be the obvious Han Solo analogy with his blaster and imperious female sidekick/boss (it's complicated, in both cases) but Rocket is as much a Han Solo type, especially since he has his own incomprehensible strongman alien friend in Groot. You could also compare Quill to Malcolm Reynolds except that Quill doesn't have even the dying embers of a cause going into the story. Guardians Of The Galaxy cribs from a lot of playbooks but doesn't copy any of them out word-for-word.

A Whole New Galaxy
The trailer promised that after the Avengers films we were getting “A Whole New Galaxy” and that's true: this film sets up the cornerstones of the cosmic Marvel properties so that even if this film had done badly there would be things to work on later. There are so many nods here for the comic fans to smile at: Knowhere makes an appearance, as does the Kyln penal colony, the Nova Corps (more of them, please), the Kree Empire, Benecio del Toro's Collector and even Cosmo the Space Dog in a, sadly, non-speaking role.

Oh, and NO SPOILERS but this film's post-credits teaser is one of the most ridiculous in-jokes I've seen in a film ever. Just remember that Star Wars license Disney now has, *wink wink*.

So, do you have any actual criticisms or are you just geeking out?
In all honesty there are only two flaws I see in the production and those are minor. The first is that there's a romantic subplot that doesn't quite come off but at least it has the decency to be underplayed. It's Starlord and Gamora incidentally, not to disappoint all those Drax/Groot shippers out there, and I don't quite buy the pairing but Saldana and Pratt have decent chemistry so it isn't offensive.

The second is that in a quite crowded film some of the guest actors don't get a chance to stand out. Glenn Close's Nova Prime shine in her every scene but is mostly a functional role and I know I'm biased but Karen Gillan doesn't get nearly enough to do as henchwoman Nebula. Definite sequel fodder there.

We've got a long way to go before the sequel (2017 was mentioned) but I have very high hopes for it. 

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