Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Haddock; featuring the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Director: James Gunn.
It never soars to the wildly subversive comic-book craziness that he conjured in 2010’s cult gem Super, but director James Gunn’s vividly idiosyncratic spin on Marvel’s renegade misfits, Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly represents a bracingly fizzy cinematic blast to the increasingly formulaic 'summer superhero' format.
Given the entire budgets of his past efforts amount to a week of craft services on a tentpole franchise starter of this scale, Gunn doesn’t forego his trademark eccentricity and engagingly off-kilter grasp of character to over-indulge his expanded canvas. Instead, he backs his established strengths while also revealing an artist's eye for colour and scale, ensuring his first mega-budgeted work is a beautiful looking film. The space-scapes and interplanetary worlds he creates and the menagerie of alien types that people them are truly wondrous at times.
In sublime creative synch with fellow scripter Nicole Perlman, Gunn bravely kicks off his blockbuster debut with a surprisingly downbeat prologue, introducing our hero, Peter Quill, as a boy experiencing the death of his cancer-riddled mother in the early 1980s. As he runs crying into the foggy night, an alien spacecraft nabs him, setting in motion a life spent drifting amongst the stars, forging a meagre living as a collector of tradable junk.
This adult Quill, aka self-proclaimed ‘Starlord’, is played with raffish charm by Chris Pratt, perfectly embodying the archetypal ‘reluctant hero’. Caring for very little except the mix-tape of classic rock tunes his mother made for him (in what is surely the best use of ‘classic rock’ oldies since The Big Chill), Quill is suddenly thrust into importance when he finds an elaborate orb that contains an ‘Infinity Stone’, an all-powerful energy source that can lay waste entire planets and that every villainous dictator in the galaxy wants.
Gunn’s first act deftly establishes the galactic landscape and the character conflict, although there were some mutterings at the screening attended by Screen-Space that this early section was too convoluted, the political evil-doings that define the conflict dragged down the first half. Not so for this reviewer, as the detail pays off in character empathy and tangible tension as the film progresses.
The Guardians coalesce organically, their individual agendas and dark personalities entirely believable. It is to script’s credit that such empathy is found in this ragtag bunch of losers, given they include an entirely CGI-crafted giant tree/biped hybrid called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel); a fiery-tempered Raccoon-like experiment gone wrong named Rocket (Bradley Cooper, in a great voice-over performance); Drax, a mountain of man-muscle out for vengeance (MMA legend Dave Bautista); and, the green-skinned warrior-woman Gamora (the supremely physical and superbly photogenic Zoe Saldana). Their nemesis are just as richly observed, key amongst them Michael Rooker’s Yondu (one of the original Guardians in the early print editions, though no such reference is made here), Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser and Karen Gillan’s Nebula, whose lithe figure and striking blue skin tone is set to dominate the cosplay universe in the years ahead.
Lumbering this jaunty, funny, irreverent work with the Marvel label should ensure a solid opening weekend, but truth be told the film’s weakest elements are those that bind it to the template the comic giant demands of its adaptations. Gunn works wonders with a thrilling effects-heavy finale, but the carnage too closely resembles the final frames of The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier and some parts of the Thor movies; it is one of the few moments in Gunn’s otherwise wonderfully original vision when audiences may utter, “Yeah, seen that before.” The studio’s demands that franchise starters have sequel-ready plot devices also dictate that characters are established here (amongst them, Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector and Josh Brolin’s barely glimpsed Thanos) to clearly serve and only fully develop in later instalments.
The counter to such claims is that those concessions are a small price to pay to allow James Gunn and his creative team access to Guardians of the Galaxy lore. It seems an ideal melding of filmmaker and material, with low-budget genre graduate Gunn (watch for a cameo by mentor and Troma Studios founder, Lloyd Kaufman) bringing all his cool-kid confidence, pop-culture savvy and fan-boy enthusiasm to his debut in the big league.