“Guardians of the Galaxy” – A Review

4 Aug

guardians

They also seem to have stolen from The Usual Suspects

We go to the movies to forget our troubles. We’re sad or lonely, worried about work or money or the way of the world. We enter the darkened theater and forget all about that for a couple of hours. If the movie is really great, we leave in a state of euphoria, the wispy remnants of the film still clinging to us. It’s like those few days after a vacation, when you maintain the glow of holiday relaxation, thinking you’re still on a beach and not in a cubicle. In some ways that is what the summer blockbuster is for – a kind reprieve from one’s day-to-day troubles. The perfect summer film can be both thrilling and thoughtful, as exciting as a roller coaster ride and as deep as a better-than-average genre novel.

The most important pre-requisite to making a great Summer O’ Fun film is this: it has to surprise me. I want to see something that I don’t expect. I want it to take me somewhere I’ve never been before. I want it to make me go “Wow!” or “Whoa!” or “What the fuck?!?”

Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in the Marvel Menagerie of Moneymaking Movies, goes exactly where it should. No further. It is a remarkably well-calibrated, finely crafted, and technically proficient piece of moviemaking. It is Exhibit A in how to make a solid, entertaining, well-made sci-fi/comic book/action film. And it is one of the least surprising and most insignificant films in recent history.

Let us dispense with a plot that is basically one giant MacGuffin utilized to propel forward the breezy entertainment of wise-cracking raccoons with guns. Peter Quill, a young Earth boy, is kidnapped by aliens. Twenty-six later, Quill, now going by the moniker Starlord, tries to steal some type of mysterious alien orb. He is captured, along with the following characters: Gamora, the green-skinned adoptive daughter of Thanos (a major Marvel baddie), Drax, a red/blue-skinned warrior who literally speaks literally, Rocket, a genetically engineered raccoon bounty hunter, and Groot, a tree-like creature (think Ent). This motley crew breaks out of jail and starts searching for something called an Infinity Stone, which the bad guy named Ronan really wants so he can wreak havoc upon those who wronged him.

Basically, the movie is four Han Solos and one Chewbacca (the tree) going against a bad guy with the screen presence of Imperial Commander No. 4 Who Was Killed by Darth Vader.

Star Wars is not the only film that Guardians of the Galaxy cribs from. It also borrows from the  Indiana Jones franchise and, heavily – albeit not completely successfully – from Firefly. Like that show and Star Wars, Guardians exists within a fully-realized lived-in universe. This is not a shiny, spic-and-span Star Trek world, where everything is cleaned just after use. Starlord’s ship is messier than either the Serenity or the Millennium Falcon. The cast of characters are likewise used and abused, with dark pasts that would make their group therapist a very wealthy man. The best of the film is just these five characters hanging out and talking. The script bubbles with snappy one-liners.

But a lived-in universe and cute dialogue are the quality surface elements hiding a flimsy story that has been told better on numerous occasions. The characters only appear to be one of the strongest elements of the film: they are just different enough from one another to seem like five distinct entities. But these characters only seem interesting because clever words have been placed in their mouths by a couple of writers who were clearly having too good a time making jokes to come up with a solid story.

Like everything else in Guardians of the Galaxy – and the Marvel Universe – these are perfectly reliable cookie cutter characters. But rather than existing as fully-formed beings with real needs and desires, they only serve to move the plot forward. This goes double for Ronan, the laughable cardboard baddie who growls and sniggers, threatens and kills with not one jot of nuance.

Guardians of the Galaxy is just as entertaining as it thinks it should be, and not any more. Still, while it is a highly unimaginative film, it is rarely boring. It is generally a fun move, flying by in just over two hours. The action sequences are solidly filmed – better than the handheld, over-edited fight scenes in the most recent Captain America film, but never on par with what Lucas or Spielberg could’ve done. There is a Gee Whiz vibe to the film, an old fashioned Buck Rogers mentality that gives the movie enough kicks to make it watchable without actually being memorable.

The frustration I feel watching a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy is similar to what I feel when watching any of the other Marvel projects. Captain America: The Winter Soldier drew from 1970s conspiracy theory films. But just because you cast Robert Redford (who starred in two of the best in that genre with Three Days of the Condor and All the Presidents Men) does not mean your film is actually about conspiracies. Guardians of the Galaxy similarly evokes the grimy lived-in universe of other, better, franchises; but that lived-in element is merely a facade. Marvel films are all surface with fraudulent depth. You jump in the pool thinking it’s ten feet deep, and you break your head because it’s only two inches.

I don’t believe that Marvel wants to make great movies. They want to make serviceable installments within a larger, money-making scheme. None of the recent Marvel films are bad. They are all competent, from script to casting to direction and post-production. They all entertain. To a point. They rarely if ever thrill. (Here’s my earlier take on this.)

I have two theories about this intentional mediocrity. First: Marvel plays a cinematic version of “prevent defense.” Their prime directive is to not make a bad movie. Just don’t screw up. This is a cowardly way of creating art (a word neither I nor – I believe – the producers would use to describe the Marvel films). A filmmaker should always want to make the best movie possible; here they are trying to not make a bad one.

A second theory is that Marvel does not want to make anything too good. If that should ever happen, then all previous films will be seen as lesser in comparison, and all future endeavors would have to – gasp! – be really amazing. Like, they’d have to try harder.

Either way, Marvel Studios are a bunch of lazy people who’ve all gotten fat from the glutton’s dream of a multitude of never-ending franchises. They are happy rich men who are content with what they have and don’t wish to rock the boat.

Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that the Marvel Universe is not broken because no one has done anything cool enough to make a dent. It is light summer entertainment and mostly forgettable. It never once made me go “Wow!” or “Whoa!” or “What the fuck?!?” because it never even tried.

Final Grade: C

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