Funny? Meh. Fun? Yeah!!! (In which I explain why you should probably have seen ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ already.)

September 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy, the most recent release from the Marvel Comics movie empire, is a fun, light-hearted science-fiction action-adventure film that you probably should have seen several weeks ago if you have any interest in that type of thing.

The movie’s protagonist is the wise-cracking, bubble-gum-chewing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). In a brief prologue set in the 1980s, Peter is abducted from Earth by an alien group known as the Ravagers moments after the death of his mother. This isn’t quite as shocking to Quill as it might have been to the ordinary middle school student, since his mother had always told him that his father was an extraterrestrial.

Roughly two decades later, we find Quill visiting an abandoned alien city, where he combines advanced technology and 1970s aesthetics. On his way to recovering a mysterious orb, Quill dances to a portable tape cassette playing one of numerous vintage songs featured in the movie.

With the job nearly accomplished, Quill (or Star-Lord, as he sometimes calls himself) is accosted by some second-tier alien villains whose names I did not catch. (I thought of them as Chief Henchman and the Expendables; all are employed by a notorious religious fanatic named Ronan the Accuser.) The human uses skill, daring, clever gadgets and luck to make his escape, but his troubles are only beginning.

Quill blows off his father figure, chief Ravager Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) and goes to sell the orb on his own. But in meeting the designated recipient, a shopkeeper on the peaceful capital planet Xandar, Quill lets slip that Ronan is also after the artifact, thereby scuttling the deal.

As Quill walks away from the merchant, fuming, he runs into three foes. One is the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whom Ronan has dispatched to retrieve the orb. (She intends to betray him.) The others are the roguish duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), some kind of genetically engineered mayhem-loving raccoon, and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a strong, strangely versatile plantlike being whose proclamations are confined to “I am Groot.” When the pair notice that there’s a bounty on Quill’s head, they try to bag him for the reward.

All four are arrested and sent to prison, where they form an uneasy alliance with one other and with the brawny Drax (Dave Bautista), who wants to avenge the death of his family at the hands of Ronan. The group — they eventually (spoiler!) adopt the moniker Guardians of the Galaxy — break out of prison, retrieve their belongings and try to sell the orb, an endeavor that turns out to be much more easily said than done. Along the way, the quintet discover how to follow their nobler impulses and learn the importance of working together.

The two-hour film — co-written by Nicole Perlman with director James Gunn, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning — includes plentiful action and numerous jokes. Lots of people have praised Guardians of the Galaxy’s sense of humor, but I found it rather juvenile. What’s so clever about the deadly, alluring Gamora unnecessarily yelling at Quill when he presses play on his mix tape and places the headphones over her ears? (I did grin, however, when Gamora accused Quill of “pelvic sorcery.”)

Drax’s confusion over mundane verbal expressions is amusing enough, but it’s no more or less comical than any of the iterations of this trope we’ve seen in dozens of earlier science fiction offerings. And for all the possibilities potentially offered by an intelligent, criminal raccoon, Rocket calls to mind nothing other than the legions of sardonic streetwise Brooklynites who have populated war movies and crime capers for at least the past seven decades or so. There are some chuckles in Guardians of the Galaxy, yes, but I certainly found the belly laughs to be few and far between.

Guardians’ action is designed and executed in top-notch fashion, however, and the climactic battle — a variant on the one from the original Star Wars, only staged in the air space above a densely populated city — is likely one of the best items of its kind ever committed to celluloid.

What’s more, Pratt is charming as the louche Quill, Saldana imbues Gamora with an appealing combination of passion and dignified reserve, and Bautista gives his hypermuscled hulk an approachable everyman disposition. And despite Groot’s limited ability to talk, the character proves to be quite engaging. Lee Pace projects menace as Ronan and Karen Gillan is adequate as Nebula, Gamora’s not-very-interestingly-written half-sister and rival.

Less enjoyable, through no particular faults of their own, are outings by John C. Reilly as a Xandarian cop and Glenn Close as “Nova Prime,” leader of Xandar’s peaceful civilization. (Close’s character is a benevolent analog to the ruthless politician played by Jodie Foster in Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science fiction featureElysium. Unfortunately, Close seems entirely out of place here.)

The characters’ emotional journeys, while entirely predictable, produce the expected effects. (The script gets in a sly dig at its own rote nature when, during a key scene in which the group pledge to join forces ahead of a key battle, Rocket cries, “Well, now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing now.”)

If you miss Guardians of the Galaxy in the movie theaters, however, don’t sweat it. It’ll appear on DVD any day now, and a sequel is bound to debut just in time for the summer of 2016 or ’17.

Should other entries in the fledgling series capture the energy of the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I’ll happily put up with any minor shortcomings even as I continue to nitpick them.

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