Film Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

Guardians of the Galaxy

A motley crew of mercenaries and mutants are the galaxy's last best hope in Marvel's gently subversive superhero sendup.

If the wayward denizens of “Star Wars’” Mos Eisley Cantina rose up and demanded their own starring vehicle, it would probably look something like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” an alt-“Avengers” in which a ragtag band of misfits and mercenaries make the world a safer place almost by accident. An unusually prankish and playful Marvel Studios vehicle, director James Gunn’s presumptive franchise-starter is overlong, overstuffed and sometimes too eager to please, but the cheeky comic tone keeps things buoyant — as does Chris Pratt’s winning performance as the most blissfully spaced-out space crusader this side of Buckaroo Banzai. While these “Guardians” seem unlikely to challenge the box office benchmarks set by their Marvel brethren, this inaugural outing should nevertheless inject some much-needed life into Hollywood’s sagging summer fortunes.

Introduced in the January 1969 issue of “Marvel Super-Heroes,” the Guardians have been spun off, recast and rebooted several times over the decades, though largely in keeping with creators Arnold Drake and Gene Colan’s vision of an intergalactic (and interspecies) Dirty Dozen traveling through time and space to protect the universe from various unfriendlies. For the film, Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have taken most of their inspiration from the 2008 incarnation of the series created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, which offered a new Guardians team consisting of various supporting players from the Marvel annals, all under the questionable leadership of one Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord), a half-human, half-alien space jockey with a comically square jaw and an air of preening self-regard.

But perhaps because the “Guardians” source material isn’t as sacrosanct as the likes of “Captain America” or “Thor,” the filmmakers seem to have been given more than the usual license to play and reinvent. They’ve tossed out a few regular characters (including the messianic “cosmic being” Adam Warlock), reduced others to insider cameos (look fast for Cosmo the telepathic Russian space dog), and made haste with the comic’s pesky space-time fissures in favor of a more streamlined, accessible storyline. Above all, they’ve turned Quill (Pratt) into an amiable, good-vibing doofus who seems congenitally incapable of taking anything seriously but can, when the occasion demands, kick serious butt.

When we first see Quill, he seems more garbage man than guardian, a galactic scavenger working in the employ of blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker), his adoptive father (and, in Marvel lore, one of the original, ‘60s-era Guardians). In a scene lovingly modeled on the opening sequence from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Quill enters a cave on an abandoned planet to retrieve a mysteriously powerful silver orb and, instead of a rousing John Williams fanfare, the soundtrack erupts with Native American rockers Redbone singing “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s the first of many ’70s FM classics (Blue Swede, Elvin Bishop, Ashford and Simpson) that emanate from the mix tape inside Quill’s trusty Walkman, and which give “Guardians” a funky, off-kilter energy even when the plotting turns toward the conventional. (Where else have you ever seen a prison break scored to “The Pina Colada Song”?)

If the Avengers are Marvel’s top-of-the-class all-stars, the Guardians are its underachieving freaks and geeks, and Gunn and Perlman have essentially crafted a new origin story about how these riff-raffers come together to keep said orb (a variant on “The Avengers’” hot-potato Tesseract) out of the hands of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a warmongering baddie hellbent on destroying the Earth-like planet Xandar. Fighting the good fight alongside Quill are Gamora (sci-fi “it” girl Zoe Saldana), rebellious daughter of an even bigger baddie called Thanos; the hulking, elaborately tattooed Drax (ex-WWE wrestling champ Dave Bautista), who holds Ronan responsible for the death of his family; a genetically modified humanoid raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and his resident muscle, an anthropomorphic tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).

It’s difficult to imagine Gunn being asked to do anything like a straight comicbook movie on the basis of his previous “Super” (2010), a darkly funny, brutally violent portrait of superheroism as a kind of psychopathy. With its large budget and crowd-pleasing ambitions, “Guardians of the Galaxy” can’t venture nearly as far out on a limb, but to Gunn’s credit, he’s delivered a movie that’s idiosyncratic enough to stand out from the crowd without ever crossing over into the full-tilt dadaism of a “Buckaroo Banzai.” The adventures here comprise a fairly standard set of Saturday-serial cliffhangers and hairsbreadth escapes, and Gunn puts them across with a B-movie savoir faire that keeps “Guardians” from ever getting too high on the hog or too bogged down in its own mythmaking. Even when we arrive at the requisite CG-enhanced scenes of competing entities zipping and zapping each other with waves of electromagnetic energy, the movie retains a welcome lightness of touch, as if to say, “Yes, the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, but what else is new?”

For all that Gunn and Perlman have pared away, “Guardians” still has more characters and incidents than it quite knows what to do with, some of which seem planted here as seeds for the inevitable sequel. Benicio Del Toro pops up briefly as an exotic “collector” who looks like Liberace after a bleaching accident, while Glenn Close is around just long enough as a senior Xandar peacekeeper to make you wonder how many man-hours went into crafting her elaborate hair bun. “Doctor Who” co-star Karen Gillan is so hastily introduced as another daughter of Thanos that, when she eventually comes into possession of the orb, it takes a moment to remember who she even is.

But the core characters are lovingly fleshed out by the performers, especially Pratt, who seems to be grooving to his own private soundtrack even when he doesn’t have his headphones in his ears, and Cooper and Diesel, who nearly walk off with the movie as a couple of fractious yet inseparable platonic soulmates firmly in the R2D2/C3PO mold. (It helps that their computer-animated avatars are both marvelously detailed and seamlessly integrated into the live-action scenes.) Cooper is so good at finding the pathos in his existentially conflicted critter that you half expect the little guy to plead “I am not an animal!” Except, of course, he is.

Elsewhere, the movie sports a rich, varied look courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis (“Kick-Ass”) and production designer Charles Wood, from the rusty, tiered interior of the floating prison known as the Kyln to the anodyne pastels of Xandar, which suggests a cross between Oz and Century City. Special effects makeup designer David White does a superb job of creating distinctive looks for the movie’s expansive gallery of humanoid and alien species.

Film Review: 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

Reviewed at Regal Union Square, New York, July 21, 2014. (In Fantasia Film Festival — Special Screening.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 120 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Marvel Studios presentation. Produced by Kevin Feige. Executive producers, Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Nik Korda. Co-producers, David J. Grant, Jeremy Latcham, Stan Lee, Jonathan Schwartz.

Crew

Directed by James Gunn. Screenplay, Gunn, Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comicbook by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Camera (Technicolor, Arri Alexa HD widescreen), Ben Davis; editors, Craig Wood, Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne; music, Tyler Bates; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Charles Wood; supervising art director, Raymond Chan; art directors, Mike Stallion, Mark Swain, Tom Brown, Jordan Crockett; 3D/VFX art director, Phil Sims; set decorator, Richard Roberts; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; sound (Dolby Atmos/Dolby Digital), Simon Hayes; sound designers, Christopher Boyes, David Acord; supervising sound editors, Christopher Boyes, Matthew Wood; re-recording mixers, Lora Hirschberg, Christopher Boyes; visual effects supervisor, Stephane Ceretti; visual effects producer, Susan Pickett; visual effects, Framestore, MPC. Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Lola VFX, Cantina Creative, Sony Pictures Imageworks, CoSA VFX, Secret Lab, Rise Visual Effects Studios, Technicolor VFX; special effects supervisor, Paul Corbould; special makeup effects designer, David White; stunt coordinator, Thomas Robinson Harper; assistant director/associate producer, Jamie Christopher; second unit directors, Peter MacDonald, Jonathan Taylor; second unit camera, Michael Brewster, Jonathan Taylor; casting, Sarah Halley Finn.

With

Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Haddock.

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  1. n6gm5cr588 says:

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  2. Saying this is subversive and “alternative” is same as calling Hootie and the Blowfish “alternative rock” in early 90s. I haven’t seen a movie this nostalgic of the Reagan era and values in a loooong time.

  3. Stephen33 says:

    So, looking back at all the comments below and the reviewers’s opinion, as well as the box office numbers.. “director James Gunn’s presumptive franchise-starter is overlong, overstuffed and sometimes too eager to please” [over long? its exactly 2 hours], [overstuffed? its bare bones compared to how most 1st’s comic to movie series focus on back story, yet pulls it off brilliantly ], [ too eager to please? I guess you mean it actually pleases]. Numbers so far: 320 M worldwide with no Asian or Middle Eastern markets open yet [which should slam in another 20 to 50 M]; at its second weekend (= already surpassing the budget, or “paid for itself” mark of 175 M budget). As far as peoples concern of sticking to the source material, it does that in spades, aside from a few artistic freedoms. The characters are spot on and maybe even more cohesive than the comics, and the universe is more or less right (give or take for the exactness of the timeline).

  4. Little did you know. Box Office utterly smashed!

  5. Nick says:

    One of most oft stated lines by you critics, “too long.” You’ve forgot the movie going experience. For you it’s a job. Our group of 6 see a couple dozen movies each year. FYI: we rarely see anything under 110 minutes. Our view? We want to get away for a couple hours. My work day ( like you), can’t be over quick enough.

  6. Garra Cornish says:

    Excellent review of a film, which despite being based on material not widely known in common pop culture, likely has the chops to propel this story into Titanic levels of interest. I think Variety is fortunate to have Foundas writing such well balanced, descriptive, and accurate reviews (at least IMO). There hasn’t been a lot to interest me this summer, Winter Soldier, a few – very few – others, and with Jupiter being pushed to 2015, it’s up to Guardians to carry the torch for the rest of 2014, or at least until December/HObbit rolls around.

  7. Jacques Strappe says:

    So far, at 21 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Guardians is 100% Fresh. Looks like ching, ching for the Marvel/Disney cash registers both domestically and foreign.

  8. rocky-o says:

    sounds like they took bits of ‘firefly’, ‘the ice pirates’ and ‘quark’-the old tv show with richard benjamin, and just hodgepodged them together…could be fun, but barely original…

    • Todd Jordan says:

      Because originality is the only measuring stick of quality, I suppose. Clamber down from your high horse before you get nosebleed, you pretentious twaddle.

    • nerdrage says:

      I remember reading the Guardians comics as a kid in the 70s (though they might have been the original crew, not these guys), so sorry, this is no “copy” of Firefly unless Joss Whedon has a time travel machine in his garage.

      Really it’s an iteration of the durable Buck Rogers story that’s closing in on a century old, which was also used for Farscape. The characters map almost exactly between GotG and Farscape.

      But whatever, I’m just so jazzed to see this movie! A week to go!

    • briantoohey says:

      Or, you know… they just produced an adaptation of their comic that predates all of those.

  9. I really hope that this will be great and fullfill all my expectations.

  10. Belell Kaeh says:

    yes, once again, piss on the source material. Hollywood thinks the foundation these movies are built on, the comic fans, don’t seem to care when they hike a leg all over the material we love. but truth is, we maybe be excited that we’re seeing SOME kind of version of the stories we love, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still pissed that they seem to think the writers and artist of the material we love were morons who didn’t know what they were doing and need helping “getting it right”.

    • nerdrage says:

      I read the comics as a kid. This movie sounds right in line with what I remember. It’s all just a variation on the Buck Rogers idea. Human fish-out-of-water character has colorful, crazy adventures in space.

      You know what, if they cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, THEN we can break out the pitchforks and torches, but GotG looks like a case where the Hollywood schlockmeisters got things right. Let’s enjoy it. I’m sure they’ll disappoint us next time.

    • ChiefMal says:

      April 2014 sales for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy were 22,705 units meaning it wasn’t even in the top 100 for the month. So you expect a movie studio to tailor a summer blockbuster movie to an audience of 22,705 people? If everyone who purchased the comic in April went to see the movie on opening weekend in IMAX 3D then it would be add $340,575.00 to the box office. Yeah catering to those 22K fans of the comic book instead of a general movie audience seems like a recipe for financial success.

    • cadavra says:

      The fact that you needed to point out that one of the writers is a woman (the implication being that she’s genetically unfit to write a comic book movie) speaks volumes more about you than it does about the film.

    • Jared Ouimette of Midland, TX says:

      Yousa dumb biotch.

    • Todd says:

      so what is your favorite guardian story line from the comics then? and what did they change that pissed all over it?

      • Lon Levin says:

        After reading Variety’s review I’m disappointed that Adam Warlock / Magus aren’t in the film, you can’t have Thanos and infinity gems without Warlock, but I’m sure he’ll be in the next one. Still, I can’t wait to see GOTG after watching the 17 minute preview.

  11. robbie says:

    I’m obviously partial before I say it…there are unique people that can’t be replaced because of their individuality, yet it takes a village also while Robert Downey Jr., brings in billions, not forgetting his incredible marketing around the world, Tom Cruise is one also. Like ability.
    The glut of superhero films makes one wonder how fast Marvel is running it’s self to exhaustion.

    • jms says:

      Was that supposed to be coherent?

      • nerdrage says:

        Sounds like something for Marvel shareholders to worry about. I’ll enjoy their movies until they start “running to exhaustion” and then I’ll go watch something I like better instead.

        But that won’t happen for a while. GotG and related stories could form a franchise within a franchise. Where’s Warlock? Where’s Nova? How about those Inhumans?

  12. paulwt3 says:

    Marvel’s sure aren’t dying, critically or at the box office.

  13. Oscar says:

    Gamora isn’t Ronan’s adopted daughter. She was adopted by Thanos, who Ronan worked for.

    • Phil W says:

      Wrong…. Superhero films are doing big at the box office. Each sequel is making more than the previous film. That’s a fact!!!!!!!

    • David says:

      Lol, some random blogger whose air of pretentiousness is so apparent I couldn’t even finish reading their article does not a prediction of the future of cinema make.

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