Thursday, February 05, 2015

We're the Guardians of the Galaxy, Bitch: Hearts and Legs Stolen, Ancient Ruins Plundered

It turns out that the largest obstacle that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY had to overcome also turned out to be its saving grace.  What GUARDIANS had going both for and against it was a thick veil of obscurity (outside of a very tight, very virginal cabal of hardcore comic book adherents).  On the one hand, obscurity--anonymity's step-brother--is a barrier to achieving glory.  It's a pit you have to kind of claw your way out of, inch by inch, until you reach the top and start shouting your name at the top of your lungs until people begin to recognize or you get locked up in an insane asylum with an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of electric shock therapy and the drooling faces of doomed souls.  On the other hand, obscurity can act as a shield against preconceived notions, giving you the freedom to create yourself in whatever or whoever's image you are so inclined, even if it's a cybernetic, anthropomorphic raccoon.

If you had told me a year ago that I would be trying to reconcile the fact that not only might GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY be my favourite Marvel movie so far but also one of my favourite movies from 2014, I probably would have punched you in the face, gouged out your eyes and used them as dice, and fucked your sister without so much as a phone call the next morning.  Luckily for those in proximity to me, GUARDIANS turned out to be great.  Which worked out well, because I already have boxes full of eye-dice in my basement I'm still trying to figure out how to store effectively.

 It seems that so often these days that more and more people are defending movies with bullshit rhetoric like you have to take it for what it is, or it was good for what it was, or--the worst of the worst--you have to just "turn your brain off" and enjoy it.  Well to people who try to employ these kinds of apologetics I have one thing to say:  Go eat a razor blade and rusty nail sandwich.  It's rationalization of the worst variety.  I don't mind watching a movie primarily for the pure visceral thrill or the fun of it, depending on the genre, but I also don't want to sit there and have my intelligence insulted.  What it always comes back to is context.  It's one thing to have crazy action and explosions on the screen, but it's another thing entirely to have them happen within some sort of established and coherent narrative context.

And GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is nothing if not fun.  It's almost as if STAR WARS and Firefly had a baby which was then raised by her long-lost uncle GALAXY QUEST.  In fact, without the necessity of having to provide the requisite threads that kept it tied to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which kept it from achieving maximum greatness, GUARDIANS would have made an excellent standalone movie/series.  If I hadn't known it was based on a comic book property, that fact would still have just as little impact on my life or perception of the film as it does now, which is to say none.
Yeah, these 3-D glasses don't really do shit.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY follows a group of rag-tag misfits who must band together to stop some evil fiends from destroying the galaxy.  Which, in and of itself, isn't as engaging a plot as it used to be as it's a pretty widely used trope, especially in sci-fi.  But director James Gunn makes it work.  Even if on paper it seems to have no chance of working at all.

A large part of the movie's effectiveness and one of the things that initially drew me to it was Chris Pratt, who plays Peter Quill AKA Star-Lord, the wise-cracking, human, not-quite-legendary outlaw who ends up leading the rag-tag band of misfits to stop the evil fiends from destroying the galaxy.  I know Pratt's most prolific role had been as Some Character Whose Name I Don't Know and Couldn't Be Bothered to Look Up on Parks and Recreation, but I never really got into the show, so that was pretty meaningless to me.  Then I saw a couple ads for the movie, and in those short, thirty to sixty second clips, I was completely entranced by Pratt.  Somehow, he managed to worm his way into my subconscious.  There was something instantly relatable about this guy.  I still can't put my finger on it, but there's something about the way he comports himself and even delivers his lines that make him seem genuinely genuine.  In fact, it was solely on the basis of three elements that I bought GUARDIANS on Blu-Ray sight unseen: 1) Chris Pratt's strangely hypnotic hold on me, 2) the kick-ass steelbook cover design, and 3) the fervent hope that it wouldn't suck nearly as badly as IRON MAN 3, easily the worst entry into the MCU so far.  (Seriously, what a piece of shit.)

Quill is the only human (terran) in the narrative (not counting the meatbags in the first few minutes before a young Quill is abducted and brought to the far corners of the galaxy), which means he serves as the surrogate for the audience, but the other Guardians are each given their due:  Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green-skinned babe trained to be a "living weapon" by the very enemy they're up against; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) the warrior who takes things far too literally; Rocket Raccoon, (Bradley Cooper) the genetically enhanced raccoon who talks a lot of shit and seems to have some anger management problems; and Groot (Vin Diesel), the living tree with a limited vocabulary and some vaguely psychopathic tendencies.  I'm still not sure exactly why Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel were involved in the movie other than to be able to put their names on it for brand recognition as their characters are both one hundred percent CGI.  They did a great job, to be sure, but they didn't do anything that Billy West or John DiMaggio, for instance, couldn't have done even better.

Driving the plot forward in one trippy looking space fortress is one Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree religious fanatic who wants to get revenge on the Xandarians in retaliation for perceived injustices against his people during a drawn-out conflict and then, apparently, destroy a bunch of planets and his former boss, Thanos.  There has been a lot of criticism about the lack of motivation and background for the bad guys, which I can kind of see.  Instead of just having one character say that Ronan is a religious fanatic, they could have demonstrated this by having him burn down an orphanage or something, I guess.  I mean, you look back at something like original STAR WARS without all of the back story added, and the bad guys didn't have any more motivation than "blow up planets of people I don't like," which is what it kind of boils down to in GUARDIANS as well.  It would have been nice to flesh out the antagonists a bit more, although after a second viewing I did come to the realization that in Ronan's introductory scene he was literally bathing in the blood of his enemies, so there is that at least to appease the masses.  I mean, it's no of raping little boys on a massive scale, which has barely put a dent in the proliferation, popularity, or profitability of the Catholic Church.  People don't seem to give too much of a shit about that, and it's actually happening, so I'm not sure exactly how in a fictionalized narrative you can make your characters much more evil than that.  I guess audiences will just have to settle for the threat of genocide.

Ultimately, the engine that drives this sort of narrative is the arc from the outcast status to a state of acceptance and social connection, which GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY manages beautifully.  Each of the quintet of main characters has his/her/its own personal demons he/she/it is dealing with, and each of them is alone in the galaxy, but in the end, they are all united as a surrogate family.  This is what Joss Whedon successfully did in Firefly and what he tried to do to lesser effect in THE AVENGERS.  In a way, James Gunn somehow manages to out-Whedon Whedon.  And during the climax of the movie, when Peter Quill and the gang stand united and basically beat the bad guy through the power of friendship, it's hard not to get that "Fuck Yeah!" lump in your throat as you have to physically choke back the words lest you draw unsolicited attention from law enforcement.  The other thing that makes the Guardians more relatable than the Avengers is that the Guardians don't really have a lot of super powers.  Drax and Groot are stronger and tougher, but mostly it's just a bunch of mortal dudes with super cool masks and rocket boots relying only on their guns, wits, chutzpah, and general insanity to take down the bad guys.
King Kong ain't got nothing on me!
Everything about GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY just worked, plain and simple.  The wise-cracking leader with a checkered past and a heart of gold who steps up to the plate when the shit hits the fan.  The soundtrack straight out of the '70s.  The fact that that soundtrack was actually contextually relevant to the emotional core of the main character.  The humour: Drax's inability to understand figurative speech (with a few glaring exceptions, like how he didn't take a giant dump right in front of the team when Quill gives the requisite pep talk to the team and tells them it's their chance to "Give a shit"), Rocket's penchent for acquiring artificial body parts, the "dick message," Quill's constant attempts to get recognized by his outlaw name, Star-Lord, and the look of joy when he finally is.      

I think the thing that led to the success of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was that Marvel allowed it to be its own thing instead of having to conform completely to the MCU mould.  It was allowed to set its own tone, and didn't have to worry as much about setting things up for the next hero or explaining where the fuck the rest of the team is when bad shit goes down during a solo adventure.  The entire tone of the film is encapsulated perfectly in the final showdown of the film where Star-Lord basically saves the galaxy and the lives of billions of sentient beings with a dance-off.    

A lot of people out there are going to be clamouring to drink in the latest STAR WARS film due out this summer, but for me, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the heir apparent to that end of the sci-fi spectrum.  This is the fun, adventurous yin to the dark, introspective yang of sci-fi properties at the other end of the scale like Battlestar Galactica.  It's not going to score points on examining ethical conundrums or political intrigue, but in the tallying of grand adventure on an epic scale, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is tough to beat.


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a sexy 9/10 = One Tattooes Warrior's Head Over Which Nothing Can Go Because His Reflexes are Too Quick and He Would Catch It.      


Post a Comment