On Awesome Mix Volume 1, the mixtape basis for the ’70s songs weaved through Guardians of the Galaxy as its soundtrack, it isn’t just Ooga Chaka Ooga Ooga Ooga Chaka from “Hooked on A Feeling” that will ear worm its way into your psyche, it’s also 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” and other well-chosen and well- placed pop hits. This juxtaposition of anachronistic music against the ultra-futuristic environments and action is just one example of the cinematic balancing acts that make co-writer/director James Gunn’s soon-to-be late summer blockbuster work so spectacularly.
At times, the film treads right on the edge of camp but doesn’t cross it. Guardians also has both humor and genuine poignancy. I defy anyone who knows the history of sci-fi movies and space operas to point to one in which there is a more jarring, emotionally affecting start. Maybe clips of the genetically engineered and smart-mouthed raccoon made the potential for something with which audiences could connect seem unlikely, as the many doubters pictured a major financial disaster coming. Cue Rocket Raccoon’s over-the-top guffaw. Oh, how wrong they will be proven. While there are elements that call other spacey flicks like Serenity, Buckeroo Bonzai, and The 5th Element most notably to mind, this latest Marvel offering has a lot of unique qualities to endear itself to any action movie fans. It’s fun in all the right places and at the same time will crawl its way under your skin and stay there, in the best possible way.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), or “Starlord” as he likes to call himself, is a thief of sorts who goes through the galaxy salvaging, stealing, or finding items for a group of space pirates who abducted him from earth as a child. He comes into possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by bad guys from all corners of the ‘verse.’ One of them, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), will seemingly stop at nothing to get it. Clearly the bad guys want to control or destroy the galaxy (this part gets a bit convoluted) and someone has to protect the planets and their populous and save the day.
Various colorful and morally questionable aliens come together with Quill out of necessity when they are thrown into and need to escape from a dangerous high security space prison called The Kiln. There is the lethal and grumpy green beauty Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who is known to have a connection with Ronan. The two bounty hunters Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and his living tree pal Groot (Vin Diesel) live by a combination of Rocket’s quick wits, fearlessness, and advanced intellect, and Groot’s quirky and unusual abilities. The physically commanding inmate Drax (Dave Bautista) connects with the rest of the ragtag team, as he seeks revenge for the death of his family, and believes the others can help him get it. Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax are what become the Guardians of the title.
By far the best qualities of Guardians are the character design, their development in the script, and their perfect casting. As Quill, Chris Pratt has stepped even further into the spotlight that The Lego Movie shone upon him, and he brings the appropriate 6-pack and swoon-worthy swagger, but also shows he has the mix of everyman approachability and acting talent that made Matt Damon a household name. Quill is a bit of a mess, the sort of disrespected B-lister in pirate circles that creates a connection with the audience. Saldana’s Gamora advances on the other humorless characters she has played but she steps out into a more starring role here. Clearly in sequels we will learn more about her history and what makes her who she is. Bautista’s Drax is anything but a cliche, because he is not only a man of brute strength, but also one of abundant vocabulary and undying loyalty. Groot speaks under 5 words in the entire film, but has a gentle grace that allows far more than a little anthropomorphizing. He grabs our hearts with his little branchy hands and never lets go. The first time audiences see Cooper’s Rocket, however, as well as every other time he is onscreen, he steals the scene. Gunn’s writing, the character design, and Cooper’s voice work conspire to create a new favorite in the entire Marvel universe. What could have been ridiculous turned out to be a delight, a hoot, and a hook to create diehard fans for future Guardians sequels. He seems to see himself as a tragic version of Han Solo, and Groot is his trusty Chewbacca. Just the fact that a film critic is referencing that classic sci-fi duo speaks volumes about the fan potential of these two new scruffy bounty hunters.
If there is a weakness here or there, it would be the visual design of the characters and environments on the planet Xandar, where the actors look like they represent a comedic version of The Hunger Games or The 5th Element . They aren’t altogether matched with the tone. Also, the audience learns too little of its inhabitants to care very deeply about the threats posed to them. Also, as with many secondary characters, they are woefully underutilized. Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Djimon Hounsou are just a few people with portrayals populating the story who one hopes will be shown more in the 2017 sequel.