Behold! “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the type of movie where every second sentence starts with “behold!” That's because James Gunn and Nicole Perlman's script understands that the essence of comic book movies is what also drives “normal people” up a wall – the deep, nerdy stew of cosmic myth mixing magical gems, xenomorphic life forms and, importantly, a rich, ridiculous verbiage. Comics will forever be indebted to the genre's “silver age” and its most important writer, Stan Lee. The 91-year-old Lee is a credited producer on this film (and makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo) and his spirit is felt every time a character opens their mouth.
But “Guardians” is still a modern movie. Its hero, Peter Quill (who works to get the sobriquet “Star-Lord” to catch on) is, in this incarnation, an '80s kid zapped up to space upon the death of his mother. Hence he clutches his old cassette walkman (loaded with inherited AM Gold '70s pop tunes) as his sole connection to Earth. We meet the adult Quill as a “ravager,” somewhere between an Indiana Jones adventurer and a nasty pirate. As he traipses the alien landscape of Morag in search of “The Orb,” a gorgeous vista straight from the covers of “Analog Science Fiction and Fact,” he's shaking his booty to the one-hit wonder “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.
This blend of classic sci-fi fare and current pop-culture irony is what rockets “Guardians” into the stratosphere. It's not quite a joke-fest like '80s cult classic “The Ice Pirates,” but it's light years from the grim reality of “Man of Steel.” And I really can't understand the mindset of anyone who isn't completely won over.
The plot to “Guardians of the Galaxy” is even more inscrutable than “Thor: The Dark World.” We've reached a point with these movies that the only way to truly know what's happening in each scene is to have a pre-existing awareness of Marvel lore or to be 10 years old and just not care. One must allow oneself to get caught up in the propulsive nature of these things. The movie is really just a stitched-together series of set pieces – finding the Macguffin, escaping capture, breaking out of prison, getting the band back together, getting double-crossed, facing personal demons, accepting personal sacrifice, yada yada yada. Luckily, “Guardians” doubles down on the draw of its lovable characters.
Chris Pratt's Han Solo-ish Star-Lord is working with a great team. At his side is potential love interest Gamora, a butt-whooper and “daughter” of uber-villain Thanos. She's the voice of reason, given to rolling her eyes in an extremely charming manner. The dumb muscle of the group is Drax the Destroyer, played by WWE Superstar Dave Batista, who consistently gets the biggest laughs in the film. In addition to being an enormous block of concrete, he hails from a planet without metaphor, so each of flat, baritone lines are laden with “Coneheads”-like syntax. Then there's Rocket and Groot.
In fantasy and fiction we've got Kirk and Spock, we've got Batman and Robin, we've got Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (the Stones are too cool to be real, right?) and now we've got Rocket and Groot.
Am I overselling it? Maybe I am. Or maybe “Guardians of the Galaxy” is merely the first peek at the bromance between a hotheaded talking raccoon and sentient tree we've all been waiting for. Bradley Cooper (voicing Rocket) is really quite perfect as the genetically enhanced rodent/bounty hunter who begins the film on Star-Lord's trail. He's got a lot of anger issues, but they manifest as being mostly a pest – like a darker, interstellar Bart Simpson. His Chewbacca (and there's no use denying Chewbacca is the template) is Groot, a happy tree that is loyal, kind and powerful as all hell.
Praise is certainly owed to Vin Diesel who recorded Groot's only line (replace Chewy's raaaaggrh with the phrase “I am Groot!”) but let's not overlook the obvious. These movies are crafted by a gargantuan team of animators and entire rooms filled with computer databanks. This legion of overworked and under-appreciated craftspeople really knocked it out of the park with Groot. We'll never know who, exactly, supplied the spark that makes this smiling collection of sticks so special, but somewhere in those thousands of processing hours, a little bit of magic happened.
While superhero movies (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular) is a warm spot for me, I'll allow that some moments of pre-viz heavy action does feel a little rote. There was an instant during some pod-chasing on The Collector's adopted casino planet of Knowhere where the action lost me for a minute. Those less forgiving than I may whip out the oft-repeated cry of “these movies all look the same.” I can't argue against the complaint that all the action is shot the same, but the alien races, spaceships and sets in “Guardians” are all quite remarkable. Alas, composer Tyler Bates, new to Marvel, doesn't break the streak of being unremarkable. Would it kill Marvel to have a memorable score once in a while?
Other consumerist notes: the 3D only has one shining moment (so much Groot in my face!) but by-and-large it doesn't earn the upsell. The projection I saw was frustratingly dark as a result of the cheapo glasses handed to me. Also, this movie is a little heavy for kids. It opens with scenes of a mom dying of cancer and has more than its share of S-bombs. Something to consider if you were hoping to bring the young 'uns.
But for those in the 13-year-old age range? Forgetaboutit. They'll be saying “I am Groot!” from now til Christmas.