words_andrew allen. photo_keithroysdon.wordpress.com
There is something to be said for homage and, yes, even imitation. Oftentimes in cinema, there is nothing more beautiful than an affectionate love-letter to the films that influenced the artist behind the camera. Unfortunately, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy manages to say most everything wrong in regards to its homages. A grave miscalculation that results in a product that, while aesthetically similar to its influences, rings unmistakably hollow in light of them.
If there is one primary complaint to be leveled against Marvel Cinematic Studios and their Cinematic Universe, it’s the lack of legitimate risk they are willing to take on the level of their individual films. While their overarching business plan is both risky and ambitious, the movies that comprise their output tend to run on the side of “safe”, “easy”, at worst totally redundant. You can immediately tell a Marvel movie by its tone, characters, look, and while that may have once been a comforting notion to most movie-goers, the second phase of their business venture into Hollywood has seen this turn occasionally sour (the drab, non-descript Thor: The Dark World being an unfortunate standout in this regard). Marvel realizes this potential problem, and, in a measure to counteract their own apparent creative redundancy, have hired offbeat directors like James Gunn and Edgar Wright to add some extra flavor to the Marvel bracket. Unfortunately, Wright couldn’t assimilate to the Marvel system and still retain his creative vision, and the film that Gunn turned in is… well, not the shake-up it desperately needed to be.
The cast is led by Chris Pratt, one of the biggest breakthrough names of the year, playing Star-Lord, loveable renegade and resident Han Solo stand-in. Pratt is more than game for this role, possessing all the wit, charisma and physical capability to be the leading role in any good action/adventure film. His comedic delivery is absolutely on-point, dropping side-stitching quips at a legitimately impressive rate. Unfortunately, his role as is written on the page has little more to it than “acting like Indiana Jones/Han Solo”. Out of all of Guardians Spielberg/Lucas imitations, this character is probably the best. That does not, however, mean that his character ever legitimately progresses beyond “Harrison Ford-esque”. The rest of the cast of renegades and ruffians is comprised of the assassin, Gamora, played by sci-fi darling Zoe Saldana, the crazed rampant warrior Drax “The Destroyer”, played by Dave Bautista, cybernetic raccoon Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and sweet-tempered tree-person Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. Unfortunately, and at no fault of the cast, the rest of this merry crew follow the route of their charismatic leader: imitations of concepts that have been done better and with more purpose. The cast more than make the best of what little they’re given, but they can’t quite salvage the one-dimensionality of their written personas. Many times throughout the movie, the cast’s chemistry and enthusiasm provides hints here and there of what could have been a much more satisfying experience had the due diligence been done in creating fleshed-out, engaging characters.
On it’s surface Guardians of the Galaxy is an adventurous space opera. It has aliens, space outlaws, a big loveable sidekick with a limited vocabulary. For all intents and purposes it is, on it’s outermost level, a meticulous recreation of sci-fi/adventure of the 1970’s and 80’s, Star Wars and Indiana Jones being the two clearest influences. This is both what gives Guardians it’s greatest potential and what ends up being its greatest fault. In recreating blockbuster classics, both Gunn and screenwriter Nicole Perlman have missed what made their reference points so special: vision. What made the Star Wars films so unique and groundbreaking was not witty one-liners and rugged aesthetic, but a universe so deep and tangible that it felt like it swallowed the theater. It was a transformational, visionary experience from the mind of a creative who was not just interested in plot mechanics, but in creating something wondrous and awe-inspiring. Guardians settles for imitation in only it’s most rudimentary sense. Over the course of the picture’s two-hour runtime, it never manages to create an immersive world with a sense of rhyme or reason to it. The aliens are little more than extras painted varying shades of blue, purple or green (with the conspicuous exception of two of the CGI leads), the sets are more or less “futuristic” but very earth-bound in their scope, more reminiscent of a planet-wide apple store than anything truly imaginative or “alien”. There is no depth, no dimension, no culture or personality that the film can ever truly call it’s own. Only empty aesthetics that serve as pale echoes of “that movie you liked as a kid”.
Underneath the Star Wars-themed hood, there is nothing to Guardians except the ever-churning cogs and gears of the Marvel machine. The characters are all variations of Tony Stark, Black Widow and The Hulk in spacey-themed garb. Their backstories are all dutifully tragic so as to offer the semblance of emotional weight to the proceedings. What seemed inspired back in 2008 just seems tired and spent here, there are only so many handsome smart-mouthed white guys and sexy female assassins you can sell in one franchise before your product starts tasting dry. The villains represent the central, fundamental problem with Guardians: The baddy this time around, Ronan the Accuser, played through performance- stifling face-paint by the wonderful Lee Pace, is easily one of Marvel’s least interesting, least dimensional and least threatening villains to date. Sitting down at the bottom of the barrel with the likes of Malekith the Accursed and Obadiah Stane, his motives are nebulous, his methods are broad, his personality all but nonexistent. And, once again, he’s threatening apocalyptic vengeance on an entire planet because… who knows? In a manner frustratingly similar to the aforementioned Malekith, Ronan is nothing beyond a plot device, a completely indistinct motivator to keep story-points moving. It’s concerning that a villain can threaten an apocalypse this late in Marvel’s game plan and have that threat feel as empty as it does here.
The problem with Ronan is one that infects the story as a whole, which is a shame, because the film has far more charisma than it’s plotting actually deserves. Things happen, not because there’s any real meaning behind them, but because they “need” to happen. Character’s relationship dynamics change at the drop of a hat, plot devices pop in and out willy-nilly, characters take on new motivations from seemingly nowhere. At one point in the film, directly prior to the final act, Star-Lord dutifully delivers a rousing speech to his crew of misfits, motivating them to join him in fighting Ronan. His motivational point? “because we care”. Well, that’s good for him and it’s good for them, because I certainly did not care whatsoever about the fate of the planet (or, rather, planet-sized Apple Store) in question. The film coasts on the presumption that its audience is there for the ride because they bought a ticket, making very few attempts to legitimately earn their emotional interest and/or investment in the story being told. Instead of dedicating time to growing and developing the heroes, each character drops their tragic backstory in lengthy, largely wooden exposition dumps. The lone exception to this being Star-Lord, who’s own tragic backstory is swiftly glossed over in the films opening minute or so. The characters fall to the wayside because, when given the opportunity to develop them, the film always opts instead to dedicate more time to overtly referencing Star Wars, displaying effects-heavy action sequences, engaging protracted bits of witty banter or all three simultaneously. It’s very telling that the centerpiece of Star-Lord’s emotional journey, the loss of his mother to cancer and his inability to comfort her in her final moments, has less than half of the screen time dedicated to it than any given one of the many, many action sequences later on in the film. There are jokes in this movie longer and more fully realized than those critical opening moments.
Which is all not to say that Guardians is a terrible film. It’s not. But its a film that we’ve already seen a thousand times and one that insists on constantly referring to, and thereby drawing comparisons to, other much, much better films. It’s a movie that floats along with the presumption of ambitious grandiosity, but accomplishes little more than well-intentioned mimicry and charisma. It is generally funny. But, the humor can’t really wash away the emptiness of the plot mechanics. That being said, there is a version of Guardians of the Galaxy somewhere out there in one of many alternate universes that’s fun, engaging and content to be it’s own thing. Unfortunately, this movie is not it.