Thinking back on my experience watching Guardians of the Galaxy, the new film from writer/director James Gunn, I find myself challenged to decide on the first aspect to really focus on. The comedy seems like an easy target, given that the feature is far and away the funniest Marvel Studios title to date. But it would be criminal to not pay immediate tribute to the impressive, gripping action sequences filled with stunning visual effects. It’s incredible that each member of the ensemble cast steals every scene they are in – letting your mind race and struggle to determine a favorite character – but it’s equally notable that each song in the ‘60s/’70s pop-rock-infused soundtrack beautifully enhances the moments it’s played. Hell, the natural starting place may just be talking about the beginning of the movie, featuring a heartbreaking, unexpectedly pathos-drenched moment set in 1988 where a young Peter Quill, the lead hero, watches as his mother passes away.
Then again, perhaps it’s just best to look at Guardians of the Galaxy from a macro perspective and call it one of the most entertaining, fun, thrilling, heartfelt and beautiful summer blockbusters we’ve seen.
Similar to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, the movie brings together a group of strange, disparate heroes/anti-heroes from the world of Marvel Comics who unite as a team and stop a dangerous enemy from killing millions. Diving deeper, however, it’s a story about five lost-but-adventurous souls who have experienced tremendous loss in their lives and begin to discover a way to start putting all of the pieces back together. The main plot begins as an adult Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) – who has become an intergalactic thief known as Star-Lord – finds himself on an abandoned planet looking to steal a mysterious orb that he hopes to sell for a pretty penny. What he doesn’t realize is that this acquisition possesses a massive amount of power, and paints a gigantic target on his back - with a war criminal named Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace), and Peter’s former partner, Yondu (Michael Rooker), separately taking aim.
It’s this event that leads Star-Lord to meet Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green alien assassin experiencing a change of heart about working for someone as evil as Ronan; and Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a talking, gun-loving raccoon and walking tree, respectively, who are hired by Yondu as bounty hunters to hunt Star-Lord down. A disastrous first encounter between the four characters results in all of them being thrown in a space prison, where they encounter Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a rage-fueled alien who wishes revenge against Ronan for the death of his wife and daughter. As the five individuals discover that they can help each other out –both getting closure with Ronan, and getting stinkin’ rich – they team up to try and break out of lock-up, but soon find themselves on a much larger mission together with millions of lives hanging in the balance.
A perfect blend of simple storytelling mixed with just the right dose of sci-fi weirdness, Guardians of the Galaxy is in many ways a marvel in the sense of balance: it’s an ensemble that gives proper shrift and provides depth to each of the central heroes, while also constantly playing around with tone for both hilarious and dramatic results. As really the only human in the film, Star-Lord serves as the audience’s gateway into the story, and Chris Pratt proves himself to be a fantastic, unyieldingly charismatic leading man.
Once all of the proper plot devices are in place, James Gunn provides exceptional depth for his entire cast. Rocket is as funny and acerbic as he is fuzzy, and with a terribly painful backstory he may even get you to produce a tear or two. Dave Bautista’s Drax is far, far more than a pile of muscles, and in addition to kicking a ton of ass, he also delivers – with perfect cadence – some of the best lines in the movie. Even Groot, who is limited to a vocabulary that consists of “I am Groot” and nothing else, is able to steal scenes just by being so physiologically bizarre and emotionally expressive. The only lead left slightly wanting is Gamora, who has a terrifyingly dark backstory that comes through more in telling than showing, but she’s still a crucial character for narrative and emotional arcs, and is intense fun to watch fluidly fighting her way through any and all opposition.
What really can’t be stressed enough is just how insanely fun and entertaining Guardians of the Galaxy is for literally its entire two-hour-plus runtime. Made with the same kind of energetic and creative gusto that has fueled classics like Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Back To The Future, the movie transports the audience to a unique, whole new world on the other side of the universe, and features no shortage of diverse landscapes, colorful aliens (both in personality and skin tone), and spaceship battles and chases. Fight sequences play out not just with skilled martial arts and weapons play, but also with bizarre little toys and gadgets found useful in rocketing characters from one side of the screen to the other. The film is built to be bright, colorful and laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s a scream to watch it succeed.
Guardians of the Galaxy is far and away the biggest budget that James Gunn has ever worked with (he being the filmmaker behind the $15 million Slither and the $2.5 million Super), but the film also happens to be the writer/director’s most mature film to date. Perhaps benefiting from working within the Marvel Studios system, Gunn made his feature on a clean-cut, linear storyline that organically and skillfully brings its entire cast together – including the amazing supporting characters. Aesthetically, you can’t tell that he hasn’t ever tackled a blockbuster before, as every “big screen moment” is shining and spectacular (the teams of visual effects artists deserving a great deal of credit as well). The movie is in every way a product of James Gunn – featuring the same smart dialogue and even a handful of his regular stars – but it’s James Gunn working on a whole other level than what we’ve seen from him before.
When Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced, it was viewed as a risky proposition on behalf of Marvel Studios, given that the titular comic book heroes were largely unknowns to even most die-hard comic book fans. Now having seen the film, all of that questioning just seems rather foolish. What James Gunn and company have put together is nothing short of phenomenal, and one of the most outstanding, entertaining pieces of science-fiction space opera out there. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and everything you could want from a piece of summer entertainment.