Friday, October 10, 2014

We Agree(ish) Guardians of the Galaxy

2014, James Gunn -- in theatre

All right, people, it's time.  It's time I either poop or get off the poop-pot.  I know you've been waiting for this review from me for so long, Mr. Comic Book Geek...some of you I'm sure have resisted the urge to see the film until such time as I shine my light on it and either bathe it in praise, or douse it with denunciation.  So here's the poop, I couldn't decide whether I loved Guardians of the Galaxy as a result of meeting and exceeding my expectations, or if I was, like David, somewhat underwhelmed by the film for the very same reason.

Certainly my anticipation was high, I was a huge fan of the surprisingly recent source material from which this team of characters sprang.  I've always had great love for the B- (and more for the C- and D-) characters from DC and Marvel comics, and this was a team comprised exclusively of characters and heroes largely forgotten by even many of the hardcore nerds.  That the next big Marvel film would take a risk on a talking, gun-toting, trash-talking raccoon, and a sentient tree who only speaks one phrase ever, and two more characters in full-body green make-up was an utter surprise, but not an unwelcome one.  The Guardians of the Galaxy comic (which weaved in and out of cosmic epic crossovers in its three years of publishing) was relentlessly entertaining, dizzyingly rich with creative concepts, and featured an engaging cast of mismatched characters who truly belonged together if only because they didn't belong anywhere else.  It was, for me at least, an endlessly exciting, and perfectly logical choice for a monster-budgeted motion picture.

I struggle with how I feel about the cinematic GOTG.  I know I came out of the film feeling entertained, as entertained as any film in recent memory.  GOTG features laughs, excitement, and some rather surprising character moments (particularly Rocket's drunken outburst had my eyes welling up in empathy), all enveloped in both the space opera oeuvre I intrinsically love as well as being embedded in a superhero universe I am 100% invested in.  The constant spectacle of seeing things on screen I never thought I would see (the Knowhere space station inside a Celestial's head, I mean COME ON!! Cosmo the Russian space dog, yesss!  More of him in the sequel please.  Nova Corps, wahoo!) propelled me excitedly through the movie, and seeing Chris Pratt, whom I've liked intensely for years as dopey Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, in a lead role couldn't have had me more tuned in.

But for all that, for all the great special effects, for all the cheering and laughing and almost-crying, so much of the film fell flat.  And no it wasn't the cheesy soundtrack -- which managed to ground the film in an Earth-based reality, without really ever needing to touch the Earth, beyond its opening few minutes -- it was just the condensed, Reader's Digest-light version of what felt like it should be a much longer story.  Ronan the Accuser (a completely disguised Lee Pace) certainly looked the part, but the in story motivation was whisper-thin, as was his character development.  It's a problem Marvel movies are generally having, villains who are basically there for the heroes to fight, and not so much great characters on their own. Compare to Loki or Iron Man 3's the Mandarin, and you can see most of the baddies are not casting much shadow.

Beyond that, certain moments felt palely false, like Gamora being manhandled in prison, or having to be rescued on more than one occasion.  She's a premiere fighter and assassin in the universe, she shouldn't in any way feel threatened by a group of thugs or unable to escape her own demise. A romance with Peter Quill should also be totally beneath her, and at least in this film, it never makes it to the big payoff, which I do admire, but I get the feeling it's just a tease for more love-hate hijinks next film.

Nebula, Gamora's step-sister, is an incredible-looking character.  The make-up job on actress Karen Gillen is phenomenal, such that, for me, she's the standout visual of the film, beyond Groot and Rocket.  Unfortunately, Gillen is either given fairly flat dialogue to deliver, or just doesn't manage to hit the dialogue with the right gravitas, as such she feels like a wasted character.  I do hope she gets more screentime in the next film.

The Nova Corps seem like a nice inclusion in the film, but the stunt casting of John C. Reilley and Glenn Close are overly distracting, the same could be said for Benicio Del Toro as the Collector.  Their characters are perfunctory and really should've called for small-time character actors in the roles.  As is, these are a few big-name people in very minor roles, signifying they have more importance then they really do.

On the upside, former pro-wrestler David Bautista is the revelation of the film, delivering deadpan, literal line readings with precision timing, building Drax into a hilarious, yet still intimidating character.  It's a shame Drax is de-powered next to his comic book counterpart, as he should have been able to go toe-to-to with Ronan, but Bautista still gives him a life that stands on its own.  As well, Bradley Cooper delivers a surprising and masterful voice performance as Rocket Raccoon, which certainly builds him into the endearing character he should be.  Vin Diesel's gravelly croak delivers so much with merely the words "I am Groot".  Of anything in the translation I was wondering how that would play, and it plays brilliantly. Certainly the voice of the Iron Giant knows how to make the most out of sparse line readings.

The film is a visual feast, though logic problems (like how various things survive various conflicts) plague the fallout of fight sequences, but overall Gunn produces a colourful and vivid Galaxy that makes the eyes pop, if not always stimulating the brain with ideas.

I have this feeling that a second viewing will either make or break the film for me, that I will either find too much flaw, or fall madly into like with it.  Given the strong public reaction and my already favourable disposition, I think I know which way I'll probably go, but it's not a foregone conclusion.  I'm certainly jazzed this renegade band of a-holes has made such a massive box-office splash, as a sequel is inevitable and I definitely want to spend more time in this neck of the Galaxy (more Cosmo, please).