In 1977, at the age of 8, I sat in a theater and experienced the awe and wonder that was Star Wars. At the time, no one had any idea what kind of cultural significance it would have or what it would mean for cinema in general and science-fiction films in particular. Though there have been many books, essays and college theses that have attempted to quantify and examine those impacts over the years, at age 8 I didn’t really care about such things.
If I’m being completely honest I should admit that I still don’t, I just remember sitting in the darkened theater being completely pulled into a new and completely realized new universe of awe and wonder and being completely captivated and immeasurably entertained by it. Thanks to James Gunn and Guardians of the Galaxy, that feeling has returned 37 years later.
At its very core, Guardians of the Galaxy is a mixture of the 1970s pop song classics that make up its soundtrack. It’s soulful, funky, playful, heartfelt and full of catchy melodies and unimpeded exuberance. Every scene, every detail, has the unmistakable mark of a cast and crew that have given their all to making the best movie they possibly can. In any other review that would be followed by a discussion about how that lofty mark wasn’t quite reached. That is not the case here. Perfect film achievement unlocked. Every beat hits at just the right tempo and the story flows in a mesmerizing and captivating rhythm.
Everything begins in the most heart-rending way possible, with a young boy, Peter Quill, losing his mother. It’s a small and quiet moment that ends with explosive rage and the ultimate escape. A grieving boy is whisked away by aliens, an escape that many of us at a certain age might have also wished for to remove us from a traumatic situation. We skip ahead 26 years where that boy, now grown into a man, is involved in a heist gone wrong and, after a harrowing escape, still manages to find himself in trouble.
There are other parties interested in the shiny orb he has stolen as well as bounty hunters on the lookout for him. Quill ends up incarcerated with a group of ne’er-do-wells with their own tragic pasts and consciousness’s that quickly forge them into a team with evolving goals. First they escape their prison, then decide to save the galaxy. No sweat.
The story and evolution of the characters are much more nuanced than that and, thankfully, nothing ever feels forced and there are never any of those “just because it would be cool” moments. The script by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman is a great example of how to do a sweeping epic in the best way possible. This movie mostly never takes itself too seriously, but wisely knows when to let the dramatic moments have their own space. There are many little moments that define shifts in the characters that can sometimes be overshadowed by the laugh-out-loud gags, but that’s what multiple viewings are made for. This is one of those films that will reveal more and more detail each time it is watched.
As far as James Gunn’s direction goes, this is most definitely his movie as his vision is clearly stamped on each and every frame. This is where the attention to detail shines through. Each race has its own technological design and aesthetic, each character has their own look and the varied environments feel different and distinct. Nothing feels generic or haphazard. Cinematographer Ben Davis goes all out with some really great color palettes and lighting choices that make things feel fresh and interesting. The film is as visually stunning as it sounds and feels.
Of course, this would all be for naught if the performances don’t back it up. Chris Pratt leads the way as Star-Lord and channels his best Han Solo while making the role of rakish rogue all his own. Zoe Saldana goes green for the bad-ass Gamora and outdoes herself here. Saldana conveys more in one look than a whole page of exposition can explain. David Bautista is the latest wrestler to make a foray into acting and he is impeccable as the no-nonsense Drax. Bautista’s comedic timing is a rare thing indeed.
The three live action actors are mightily challenged by the two CGI members of the team, namely Groot and Rocket. But Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper bring heart and soul to the tree and raccoon in very unexpected ways. The computer representations are flawless. You will believe a raccoon can snark. The supporting cast brings their A-game as well with too many fine moments to talk about here. It all makes for a Marvel movie with not only the largest cast of characters yet, but with also the best acted.
The end of the movie brings everything thematically full circle in very poignant and hopeful ways. I’m not going to lie, I teared up at least a couple of time towards the end, it was that beautifully portrayed. Just before a silly coda and end credits scene that bolsters the over-all fun of the previous two hours, there is the promise that “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return.” Indeed, Marvel Studios announced a week before release that James Gunn and company would be seen again on July 28, 2017 for the now highly anticipated sequel.
If the second one can achieve half of the fun and pathos this one gave us then we will be in for a treat. At the very least, the Marvel films between now and then have a lofty bar to jump over. The advertising for Guardians of the Galaxy has already told us we’re welcome, but I thank James Gunn and Marvel Studios for the best film in a very long time.