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Guardians of the Galaxy
Further proof that Marvel Studios is nigh-unstoppable
Loves: Chris Pratt, Marvel Studios movies, team-up stories
Likes: James Gunn
Dislikes: Space epics
Hates: Edgar Wright not directing Ant-Man
Lots of people were wondering what Marvel was thinking when they decided to make a major motion picture around one of their more obscure properties, putting a comic actor in the lead and handing the reins to a writer/director mainly known for hard-to-define cult films. But then, suddenly Edgar Wright was no longer at the helm of Ant-Man, much to the dismay of film fans worldwide. The decision looked bad, as the film struggled to pull itself out of a pre-production tailspin in the wake of Wright's departure. Then, it looked even worse when Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man's fraternal twin in terms of its production backstory, became the latest blockbuster Marvel Studios release, answering all the questions asked about Wright's would-be Marvel movie.
Perhaps Wright and Paul Rudd wouldn't have been as successful as James Gunn has proven to be when directing Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt, but the joyful, intergalactic chaos that is Guardians of the Galaxy argues that Marvel should have given it a shot. Taking the little-known team, which has had several incarnations since the ‘60s, and letting Gunn, a Troma-trained director known for genre films like Slither and Super, have his way with them, while still keeping them firmly in the cinematic universe Marvel has been building, resulted in a fun sci-fi romp that does nothing to lessen Marvel Studios' reputation as the Pixar of live-action general-audience films.
Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Pratt), is a human who, after being abducted by aliens as a child, has become a space-faring thief and con-man with an ego far larger than his actual reputation.. After stealing a mysterious orb, Quill becomes the target of a number of forces, the most dangerous of which is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a fanatical member of the race known as the Kree, who is working with the evil Thanos (last seen at the end of The Avengers.) On the run from assassins and the law, Quill finds himself in combat and then allies with a group of criminals that includes a sentient, gunslinging racoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper as Danny Devito), the rebellious killer Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutal, revenge-seeking Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista) and a talking tree who only says "I am Groot" (given life by Vin Diesel.)
Guardians of the Galaxy is a visual spectacle, the kind of special-effects showcase that a space-based sci-fi film should be, with a mix of high-energy hand-to-hand combat, starship battles and superpowered fights, all set against an epic background that spans, appropriately enough, the galaxy, including a truly tense climactic face-off above the heads of an imperiled population leading to the kind of badass moment of resolution you want from a comic-book movie. Superman may have made audiences believe a man could fly, but Guardians will make you believe aliens are real, raising the bar for explosive space adventuring. Though the action, which is plentiful, may start to feel excessive in spots (your taste for aerial combat will determine much of that), Gunn and company pace things out well, with major set pieces balanced out by oft-comic explorations of the characters.
It's in the interplay between the Guardians that the film finds its best moments, as the disparate members of the team all have their own distinct motivations, and those reasons for joining together don't always jive with each other. It's a classic example of the "forced-together team of people with specialized skills" concept (an unwieldy term that needs a better label to be sure) and the friction between them is highly entertaining, while making the fruits of their developing teamwork that much sweeter. A scene that takes place in prison, where the team has to find a way to escape, blends a number of well-loved movie tropes, including the heroes behind bars idea, the heist concept and a traditional break-out, but by skinning it in as a sci-fi adventure, with a team never seen before on film (a guarantee when you've got a tree and a racoon) there's a freshness that makes it all the more entertaining.
Though the team is visually intriguing as a unit from the start, with Quill's bad-ass mask, the sexy, green-skinned Gamora, Drax's hulking brutishness, Groot's arboreal uniqueness, and the contrast of Rocket's cute exterior and heavy weaponry, the personality clashes are the key to the film's success, with Gunn (and co-writer Nicole Perlman) making them a quirky crew, which is then brought to life by a talented team of actors. Pratt, in particularly, is a revelation, carrying the film with the smooth mix of wit and derring-do that all great heroes boast (as well as the goofy charm that has made his Parks and Rec character a fan-favorite), while each of his teammates gets a chance to shine, especially the sub-team of CG-created partners-in-crime Rocket and Groot, who are undeniable break-out characters. Though the movie is loaded with laughs and thrills, there's an emotional heart beating in there as well, with Pratt's well-rounded hero impressing and Diesel delivering the same kind of performance that made his role in Iron Giant so wonderfully memorable. The supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either, with enjoyable turns by Michael Rooker (channeling a bit of Woody Harrelson), Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz.
Though Guardians of the Galaxy is mostly a standalone cosmic adventure that doesn't require extensive knowledge of the Marvel Universe or the history of the Marvel Studios films, it does tie-in with the established storyline, including appearances by characters from the other movies and the continuation of the the overarching Marvel plot. As a result, the film is enjoyable on its own, but as a part of the overall franchise the entertainment value rises, with certain scenes taking on increased meaning (though the traditional Marvel post-credits scene is seemingly free of any genuine connection to the ongoing storyline.)
Packaging was not supplied. The Blu-ray disc's animated menu, which is based on the cassette player in Quill's ship and features a loop of Hooked on a Feeling offers a choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the special features. Audio options include English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Presented with a 2.40:1, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer (the 3D version reportedly has a shifting aspect ratio to allow for some playful outside-the-frame 3D effects) this film looks fantastic, reproducing the gorgeously vivid galaxy Gunn and his collaborators created without issue. Color is appropriate and black levels are strong throughout, delivering the bold hues and darker moments equally well, while the level of fine detail is tremendous (see how many times you notice the tiny troll doll in Quill's ship now.) Despite the film going a full-tilt at most moments, everything remains clean and free of any digital distractions, resulting in a beautiful space experience.
At one point in his commentary (see the Extras), Gunn notes that he hopes you have a good home theater system, and he's absolutely right, because the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track here is the kind of aural experience that justifies the money you put into all those speakers. Of course the great ‘70s pop music soundtrack, which includes great songs like "Spirit in the Sky," "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" and "Come and Get Your Love", is a big draw, and it sounds tremendous (and, of course, smooth) in DTS-HD, but there are bits of amazing all over this film's sound design, from small details to room-rattling blasts, with the mix placing sources distinctly and moving the action around, putting the viewer in the middle of all the action, which you'll feel thanks to the active low-end's power. Despite all of the elements present and the frequent barrage flowing forth from your system, especially in the big battle scenes, the dialogue remains clear and crisp as well. All around, the great presentation this film deserved.
The extras kick off with an audio commentary courtesy of Gunn. An active track with no dead spots, the commentary including a good deal of narration on the director's part, along with plenty of production detail and a hefty amount of backstory that wasn't included in the film, filling in the details of the various alien races, including their cultures and politics, as well as more info on Ronan's religious background. Gunn discusses the things he loves about the movie, including his favorite shots, the things he cut and now regrets cutting, the importance of the contrast between visuals and music and the many easter eggs included for comic-book fans. It's a really enjoyable track for fans, as he covers a wide variety of topics, from Twitter's role in the casting to the mixing of practical and digital effects, all with genuine enthusiasm.
There's more to be heard from Gunn in a reel of six deleted/extended scenes (4:22), which include optional commentary from the director. Nothing here is a controversial cut, as you get a bit more with Reilly and Serafinowicz in the line-up scene, some rough CG moments, a touch more between Gamora and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), a vote amongst the Guardians, and more Gamora action. The only one that might have been worth keeping, for silly reasons, is an additional moment with a guard at the prison. On his commentaries, Gunn gives some brief background and talks about why the scenes were cut (which, as I have noted in the past, should be mandatory with deleted scenes.)
A few featurettes are included, starting with the 20:56 "Guide to the Galaxy with James Gunn," which includes segues courtesy of scenes from an NES-style Guardians of the Galaxy game featuring Gunn. This piece features a ton of behind-the-scenes on-set footage (with good looks at the green-screen work, including two green-screen characters) and plenty of interviews with the cast and crew. The film's big set pieces are the focus here, and this featurette covers them in fine detail.
The other featurette "The Intergalactic Visual Effects for Guardians of the Galaxy" (7:11) looks at the creation of Rocket and Groot, including the animation and the voicework, with interviews with Cooper, Diesel and Pratt, as well as footage of Cooper and Diesel in the voiceover booth. Both characters are excellent examples of how a computer-generated character can have flesh-and-blood emotion, and this featurette shows a bit about how that was accomplished.
The Guardians extras wrap with a short gag reel (3:54), which is the usual mix of goofing around and on-set dancing, however this one is a must-see, simply because a key moment in the film is played out to better results, as we get to enjoy both the evil villain Ronan and the dark assassin Gamora both bust a few moves. Come for the dancing, stay for Rooker being Rooker (and even some CG screw-ups.)
Also on the disc is the 2:17 "Exclusive Look at Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron." Don't get your hopes up for much, as it's a quick cut of on-set footage (including the Hulk vs. Iron Man Hulkbuster suit battle, and Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch in action) along with soundbites from Joss Whedon, Kevin Feige and Elizabeth Olsen. The core message is the film's global scope.
The Bottom Line
Until Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel cinematic universe was mainly the playground of spandex-wearing superheroes (with even the Asgardian adventures of Thor feeling rather Earth-bound.) But with Star-Lord and his crew now on the scene, the heavens have opened up and Marvel is working in a cosmic realm, with a brand-new atmosphere and energy, while Gunn and Pratt lead a continuation of Marvel's brand of comedy-tinged action. The quality is excellent and the extras included are nice, but the Marvel blu-rays have tumbled in terms of content from the sets the first phase brought with them. The problem is, most people are going to want to own this movie, great extras be damned. And that's why we can't have nice things like the Marvel One-Shots.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.