Guardians of the Galaxy is not a superhero movie, the creative heads at Marvel are fond of saying before pointing out that it’s actually a science-fiction film. And while technically they’re not wrong, the term “science fiction” has taken to mean a colder, harder type of fantasy storytelling over the past few decades. Science fiction is Aliens and The Terminator and The Matrix. And last year, in Man of Steel, Warner Bros. retold Superman’s origins through a science-fiction prism, turning that character’s universe technical and chilly. So while Guardians of the Galaxy may qualify as sci-fi, it’s a type of sci-fi the movie-going audience is parched for, having been denied it for so long, because Guardians is fun and colorful and not afraid to make jokes throughout its entire running time, even during the climax. It takes that good-time Marvel vibe that Joss Whedon damn near perfected with The Avengers and combines it with a Star Wars-ian sense of space adventure, fusing the two into an entertainment that’s easy for mass audiences to love and hardcore comic geeks to obsess over.
I will admit: I was an easy mark for this thing going in. Its writer and director, James Gunn, has been one of the freshest voices in low-budget genre cinema for the last decade or so. He broke into the business working for schlock-cinema guru Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment before branching out and making a couple of arguable cult classics called Slither and Super. (Both great and worth checking out if you haven’t seen them.) He also wrote Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, a movie that had no right being good but somehow was. So when Marvel announced they had picked Gunn to direct Guardians, it tickled my cinephile soul. And then, as if things couldn’t get any better, they went and cast Chris Pratt in the lead. The mainstream press has mostly labeled Pratt an unknown coming into this film, but anyone who watches NBC’s great sitcom Parks and Recreation has known for years how charismatic Pratt can be. The guy was a Harrison Ford-esque action star waiting to happen. All he needed to do was lose the gut.
Which he did and then some to play Peter Quill, the buff and charming scoundrel at the center of Guardian‘s galaxy. The film’s plot is entirely MacGuffin driven. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark or the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies (you know, the good ones) and you’re on the right track. Following a cold open showing Quill’s Earthly origins, the movie jumps forward 26 years in time and untold light-years through space to find an adult Peter recovering an artifact from a dead planet. As it turns out, the artifact is an Infinity Stone, one of the six ancient weapons of power that are being slowly revealed and hoarded throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. Peter just wants to sell the damn thing for a big score, but because he possesses it, he soon draws the attention of a host of unsavory characters interested in the stone.
Enter Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a fanatical Kree alien who wants to use the stone to destroy the Xandarian Empire, a good-natured people his race has just established a fragile peace with. Ronan has made a deal with Marvel big-bad Thanos; if Ronan procures for him the stone, Thanos will destroy Xandar in return. So Ronan sends Thanos’s “adopted” daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a lithe, green-skinned assassin, to track down Peter and retrieve the orb. At the same time, a fuzzy little bounty hunter named Rocket, a cybernetic humanoid raccoon who travels with some muscle in the form of a giant sentient tree named Groot, has ID’d Quill and wants to collect the bounty on his head. The foursome end up in a rumble on Xandar, which gets them thrown into a space prison, where it’s revealed that Gamora can’t bear to see Xandar destroyed and is planning to betray Ronan. Before long, the quartet has teamed up with another prisoner — a hulking badass named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), whose family was murdered by Ronan — to break out of the clink, preserve the stone, defeat Ronan and save the Xandarian homeworld.
I know it sounds complex, but I promise you, it’s really not. Essentially, both the heroes and the villains want the little metal sphere at all times. At any point during the movie, the heroes either have it and are trying to protect it while they decide want to do with it, or they’ve lost it and are attempting to get it back before really bad things happen. And, honestly, the mechanics of the plot are not the point of this movie anyway. Guardians of the Galaxy is all about the characters, and, as you can tell from the above plot descriptions, it contains some colorful ones. There are more wonderful little character moments embedded into this film than perhaps the previous nine Marvel Studios films combined. Think of Groot growing the flower on his body and then picking it to give to a young Xandarian girl. Or the look on the big tree’s face in the space bar when he realizes the lizards that everyone’s gambling on are going to eat each other. Or Gamora’s slight body movements and embarrassed smile once she finally decides to give dancing a try. Or the pain that shoots across Gamora’s sister Nebula’s face when Thanos casually refers to Gamera as his “favorite daughter.” (Nebula, a largely cybernetic assassin who was obviously trained with Gamora, makes for a striking, if underused secondary villain. I expect she’ll be back in a big way for the sequel.) Guardians is a fast-paced action movie filled with jokes — good ones! — but there is hardly a scene that goes by that isn’t at least in part focused on telling us more about these characters: first how they’re broken and then how they begin to mend once they find each other and decide to help the universe at large rather than just taking from it.
The cast is more than up to the challenge. Pratt is suave and hilarious and, by movie’s end, a full-blown movie star. Saldana is sexy and strong. Bautista handles the tough transition from professional wrestler to actor better than anyone not nicknamed “The Rock.” And as the voices of Rocket and Groot respectively, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel work with the visual-effects artists to make two very bizarre CGI creations the heart of the film. Groot especially is a wonder as the giant plant basically only speaks one line of dialogue — “I am Groot” — yet ends up being the center of many of the movie’s most emotional moments. (And, yes, a movie that features a smart-mouthed raccoon and a tree that talks will make you cry.) Ronan isn’t the most complex of villains but proves effective mostly thanks to the design of the character and Pace’s surprisingly imposing performance. There are a gaggle of fun supporting characters too, from John C. Reilly’s working-stiff Nova Corps officer to Michael Rooker’s blue-faced tough-guy Yondu. I never would have guessed that Rooker would get more screen-time in this movie than Glenn Close, but it is a James Gunn film, after all, and that’s exactly what happens. Rooker is having a blast here and gets to wield the movie’s best weapon — a deadly arrow that Yondu controls telepathically by whistling at it.
Speaking of that arrow, thirteen-year-old me would have loved the tech in this movie. From Quill’s nifty rocket-blasters that he straps to his legs to the locust-like design of Ronan’s Necrocraft, everything in Guardians looks cool. Even the battles are inventive, like when the Nova Corps flies their spaceships into close formation, effectively creating an “energy shield” that they use to slow the approach of Ronan’s approaching ship. This is a hugely imaginative movie.
I’ve saw Guardians for a second time on Saturday. I actually waited until a repeat viewing to write this review, just to make sure my love for the film stemmed from the actual product and not my pre-release excitement for it. I’m comfortable now in saying that it’s absolutely the former. Somehow, someway, Marvel decided to give Gunn of all people a check for $150 million-plus to go make a wacky but heartfelt space adventure using some of its lesser-known characters, and Gunn delivered a movie that is better than could be imagined, even by those of us who couldn’t help but grin when he got the gig. Just like the fizzy, sing-along pop classics that are spattered throughout its soundtrack, Guardians picks you up. It makes you want to dance. It makes you smile until you’re positively beaming. It’s why summer movies exist. It’s why comic-book movies exist. It’s the best film Marvel Studios has produced thus far and one that they are going to have a extremely difficult time ever topping.