Wednesday, July 30, 2014

'Guardians of the Galaxy' (2014) directed by James Gunn

In James Gunn's excellent Guardians of the Galaxy the human race gets to be the coolest kid in the playground.  Set in a universe populated by the moronic, the pompous and the self important (all with surreal haircuts) we come out looking like intergalactic Fonzies. Even better, is that our most effective weapons aren't guns and bombs, they're Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and David motherfucking Bowie.  

This is an old school space opera that's much more a 21st century evolution of Flash Gordon than any po-faced hard science fictioning, the kind of setting where a few blobs of latex and a bit of facepaint on an extra and they're a whole new species.  This blob of weirdness set within the same filmic universe as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but this is a clean slate in every sense of the word.  Gone is the desaturated dullness of The Winter Soldier and the atrocious flattened cinematography of The Avengers.  In its place is a riot of colour and imagination, shot with an eye for the epic and a desire to embrace comicbook ridiculousness.

That Marvel are willing to release a tentpole summer blockbuster starring a talking raccoon, a tree man that only says three words and an obscure-to-everyone-but-ultra-geeks supporting cast of comic book space dudes says an awful lot about their current level of confidence. I consider myself relatively up on comics - I know my Stilt Man from my Hypno-Hustler - but even I drew a blank on what the hell the Guardians of the Galaxy's deal was.

Drink in that lovely colour.  Mmmm.
The centre of the story is Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt).  Abducted by aliens as a young child he's grown up to become space Indiana Jones. His life consists to be zooming around the universe in a cool spaceship, stealing alien archaeological relics and living the Kirkian dream of banging multicoloured spacebabes.  After tracking down one particularly important item he becomes involved in an intergalactic war, one side wreathed in darkness and flying around in a sinister ship that looks like a floating Castle Dracula and the other a miniskirted, greenery covered utopia run by a magnificently coiffed Glenn Close (you decide who the baddies are).

Space MacGuffin in tow, Quill is suddenly the focus of a lot of attention.  Courtsey of some impressively organic screenwriting he's soon the leader of a fractious group of losers bound together by either psychoses or greed.  They are; green skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), gun-wielding smartass raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the childlike tree man Groot (Vin Diesel) and hulking moron Drax (Dave Bautista).  

They've got to band together to keep the space whatsit from falling into the hands of the evil Kree Empire led by the sinister Ronan, his cybernetic half-sister Nebula and their muscle Korath who all serve the Darkseid ripoff Thanos who wants nothing more than to master the Infinity Gems and blah blah blah.... you know what? None of that rubbish matters in the slightest.  

Here's 'yer baddie.  He's a bit pantomime.
Refreshingly the entire intergalactic conflict takes a backseat to well constructed set pieces, cracklingly good dialogue and excellent music.  This whole science fiction universe is one ginormous straight man to our everyman hero as he bounces from one ridiculous situation to another with only his sense of comic timing saving him from disaster.  By the end you've realised the less seriously Quill treats the plot the more success he has.  

Highlights are passing off the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose as one of Earth's epic tales, an inpromptu dance-off in the face of certain death, a perfectly timed jizz-joke, Drax's inability to comprehend metaphor, a Simpsonsesque foreground vs background gag involving Groot and the confident, logical assertion that no person can truly be "a 100% dick".  Gunn essentially treats the Marvel space comics like his personal playground, fitting in more idiosyncrasies and bizarre elements than anyone could ever have expected Marvel would allow.

Underscoring all that is a firm vision of epic adventure.  Cinematographer Ben Davis frames his glittering space vistas with a care and attention to detail that'd make Jack Kirby blush. Everything is vibrant and alive, frames are packed with miniature details that bring the world to life and crucial imagery is composed with an artist's eye for drawing the eye through a frame.  Great blooms of colour fill the screen during the action sequences, purples, red and yellow flames blossoming around the characters to stunning effect.  For the first time in a Marvel film even the 3D is worthwhile, the fruit of Gunn taking an active interest in the post-conversion process.

^ this is good shit ^
On top of all that is the genius idea to soundtrack the film with hits from the 70s.  The conceit is that when Quill was abducted in 1988 one of his few possessions was a cassette Walkman loaded with a mix of his mother's favourite tunes.  The music makes the film accessible, the familiarity of the songs giving audiences a foothold in an this alien universe. Not to mention that the careful chosen songs all kick ass - as characters plan out their next move to the snarling howls of Joan Jett it's difficult not to get keyed up.

Guardians of the Galaxy ends up feeling like a sharply delivered riposte to critics (and I include myself in this) who've written off Marvel Studios movies as unimaginatively formulaic and stylistically bland. This is light years beyond garbage like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers; if Marvel really are trying to figure out a formula to stick to they could do a hell of a lot worse than making their subsequent films more like this.  This is brimming over with things I enjoy - imagination, good nature and the most ridiculous hairdos this side of The Fifth Element.


Guardians of the Galaxy is released on the 31st of July.

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