Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: We Are Groot - Review of James Gunn's Epic Space Opera

The publicity Marvel (and Disney) have put into getting the word out for James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy," you would think that this new franchise is something close to the second coming of the messiah -- and they may be right.  Well, maybe not, but close.  Unlike other Marvel properties like "Thor," "Captain America," the "Hulk," and "Iron Man" along with their auxiliary characters who survive in a more serious universe; Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot exist in a galaxy of danger, romance, nostalgia, friendship, and humor.  Just like the real world, kind of.  "Parks and Recreation's" Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and wrestler Dave Bautista star as the live actors in Marvel's new franchise.  Yes Virginia, there is a sequel.  As of opening date, Marvel has already green lit a sequel.  Vin Diesel ("Pitch Black," "Fast and Furious") and Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle," "Limitless") voice the two best characters in this extravaganza.  "Guardians of the Galaxy" has some mild swearing, nothing a 13 year-old already hears at school (public) and the film runs a tad over two hours.  Don't forget to stay until the very end of the film for the short clip after the credits. 

For fans of the printed comics, let me be clear, this version is a new retconned version of what Guardian fans may know.  As far as the comics go, all bets are off and each of the Guardian’s past are different from the print version.  This is a new origin story for a new film franchise.

Gunn sets the tone immediately in the first two scenes of the film.  10 year-old Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) is facing the worse day of his life.  His mother (Laura Haddock) lies dying.  A victim of cancer, she wants to say goodbye to her son.  Walkman turned up, we hear 10cc's "I'm not In Love."  His grandpa (Gregg Henry) brings him into the room where his mom wants to hold her son's hand and let him know that things will be okay.  Melodramatic?  Most assuredly it is.  Does it work?  Most assuredly it does.  His mom tells him things to assure him that everything will be all right, and that his father will come for him one day.  She describes his father as an angel.  Peter, in his anguish, runs out into the fog, where he is beamed up into an alien craft.  

It is now 26 years later, and Quill (Pratt) is an adult now, a womanizer and a thief.  This is a stereotype that Quill sheds somewhere in the second act.  On the planet Morag, the tone of the scene is dark and serious, but the mood changes quickly as Quill puts on his earphones and blasts Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."  The tone is set, as Quill dances his way to the temple where an orb resides.  Inside, Peter takes the orb and begins to leave.  Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and crew immediately set upon him.  First, he tries talking his way out of the mess invoking the name Star-Lord.  Failing that, Quill opts for a quick gun battle and ends up on the run.  Pratt plays Quill with all the likable humor and candor of Nathan Fillion of "Firefly" or the recently passed James Garner.  Already we know who this character is and we know we like him.  

"I look around and you know what I see? Losers!... But life's giving us a chance." Peter Quill

James Gunn and writing partner Nicole Perlman's characters in "Guardians of the Galaxy" are flawed and broken.  Quill, a victim of kidnapping, still holds on to the memory of his dead mother.  Gamora Saldana) has issues with the dark lord Thanos, who murdered her family and her whole race in front of her when she was a young child.  He trained and genetically altered her as an assassin, the day for her to seek revenge on Thanos has come.  Action scenes are not new for Zoe Saldana.  In “Colombiana,” she is a vicious killer, and in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” she kicks plenty of Klingon asses.  Playing the green colored Gamora, is not very different, no real stretch for her.  Gamora, and Saldana for that matter, are equal in every way to their male characters and fellow actors.  She leads at times, and sometimes she follows, but she is a presence that demands attention.

Drax (Bautista) is a slave to the memory of his dead wife and child.  No need to go into great depth in defining these characters, we know these types already.  We know what to expect.  I must note that the world from where Drax comes from has no sense of metaphor.  This lack of colloquialisms provides some humorous exchanges.  Bautista’s acting lessons are paying off, and he brings more life into the dry humorless Drax than he did with the Diaz character in last year’s “Riddick.”  Dave is likeable, and his dry wit is amiable.  
Asleep for the danger, awake for the money - Rocket to Groot
Groot (Diesel) and Rocket (Cooper) are two characters that in ways transcend their stereotypes.  Rocket and his bodyguard Groot always travel together.  Rocket is a raccoon, short, and tough.  Bradley Cooper does an excellent job bringing this Joe Pesci-like character to life.  He is the leader, and Groot, happily follows along.  Rocket, like Pesci, could be abusive to the childlike Groot, but of course, he never really means those insults.  Groot is a humanoid tree-like alien.   Vin Diesel has only one line, and it consist of only three words, I am Groot, exactly in that order.  Diesel puts his heart in soul into those words.  Every time Groot utters those words, the audience feels that emotion.  Groot is full of surprises and in the end, one of the most loveable of the Guardians.  

Marvel's new galaxy contains very interesting characters, and Gunn has interesting actors playing them.  For example, Quill is beholding to a blue colored alien character named Yondu Udonta.  Yondu is part villain, part father figure to Quill, played delightfully by Michael Rooker ("Cliff Hanger," "The Walking Dead").  He has and uses his Yaka Arrow that he controls by whistling.  Quill decides that he is going to break free from Yondu's hold and go on his own.  This, of course, is not suitable for Yondu and he puts a bounty on Quill's head.  Ultimately, Yondu’s character is the stereotypical not-so-bad-bad-guy. 

Gunn spends less time building the characters of the true villains in this film.  Probably because they won't be around for the next film.  Ronan the Accuser is both a military leader and a religious zealot of the Kree.  Think Tea Party if you must if that gets the point across.  By the way, similar in nature to the Judeo-Christian adversary -- accuser is another term used in relationship to Satan.  Lee Pace ("The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Soldier's Girl") plays this character with much of the same grandeur that Darth Vader held in "Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope."  Covered in makeup, a black hood, with dialog, that borders on cheesy at times, may be the least developed character in this film.  All we know is that this guy has issues with the Xandarians, and wants to wipe them out.  Djimon Hounsou ("Gladiator," "Blood Diamond") portrays Korath the Pursuer.  His part is small, and we just know that he is Ronan's henchmen.  Nebula (Karen Gillan), another adopted daughter of Thanos, is partly a cyborg.  Unlike Gamora, Nebula is devoted to Thanos and wants his approval.  Those of us who don’t follow the comics, have very little clue to who these baddies are, however, it isn’t necessary to enjoy the film.  But it doesn't hurt to know more.  
Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.Peter Quill
Story wise, the plot for "Guardians of the Galaxy," is simple, keep the Orb with the Infinity Stone within, away from Ronan the Accuser, firstly and Thanos secondly.  Failing to do that, the story shifts to plan B, and becomes defensive.  Protect the planet Xandar and the Xandarians.  However, with this story getting from point A to point B takes some scenic routes.  The five main characters come together on Xandar, but bond in the Kryl prison.  Peter Quill doesn’t value much, but he does value his Walkman and the cassette labeled Awesome Mix Vol. 1 inside.  During the prison-processing scene, Quill is willing to get his ass kicked to Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked on a Feeling.”  He is willing to die for that machine, and the music.  However, it isn’t until the end of the film that we really know why.  Wearing prison yellow, the group plans an escape.  Under Rocket’s direction, each member must go on a scavenger hunt for parts to use in their escape.  What makes this whole whacky escape plan sublime, is the final execution.  The plot includes space and aerial battles, a meeting with The Collector (Benicio Del Toro),  personal battles where each of the Guardians takes on a baddie.  A little bit of romance, not much really.  And scenes that are touching, and funny.

None of the main characters is set up as comic relief; however, they all are funny at different times.  They all are also serious at times, and each can hold their own in combat.  Each has skillsets and likeable traits that the audience can relate to.  And they all have issues that their characters must work through in less than two hours.  A credit to Gunn and Pearlman is their ability to balance comedy, drama, and action in a way that appeals to both kids and adults.  Not everything in “Guardians of the Galaxy” is in your face hilarious.  Some of the best and most touching moments come subtly.  A simple scene that evokes emotion is Groot plucking a flower from himself and presenting it to a little girl.  Or another gesture from Groot, where he places a limb/hand on Drax’s shoulder in a time of despair speaks volumes about the characters.

I have been mentioning various songs from the 1970’s throughout this review.  The music is important and James Gunn understands that.  Not only are the tunes catchy and nostalgic, the music roots the character to a timeframe and feel-good emotions that a kid and the audience can relate to,   Tyler Bates score, although glorious and grand at times, is not quite that memorable.  When I walked out of “Star Wars” as a kid, I was humming the tune as I rode my bike home.  When I hear the tuba, I think get out of the water, I think “Jaws.”  

When thinking about epic space battles today, it is hard, because of the legacy of “Star Wars.”  In 1977, the attack on the Death Star was epic and exciting.  Chasing the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field was mind blowing in 1980, and the final battle in “Return of the Jedi,” set a new standard that all space battle either comes close but rarely beat.  In the case of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the special effect meets the standard but doesn’t surpass it.  
I have lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I would be grateful to die surrounded by my friends. - Gamora
Nostalgic and fun, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is probably the best family film that I have seen in a while; at least for this year.  Gunn and Pearlman wrote a story that although is comic bookish at times, is overall both hilarious and entertaining.  This is a spectacle that deserves the theater experience; at least for the first viewing.  I particularly enjoyed the songs in the film.  I even liked the affability of the Guardians, even when they were at their worst.  We are all Groot.

No raccoons or tree creatures were harmed during the making of this film.


Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Year:  2014
Staring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace
Director: James Gunn
Producer(s): Kevin Feige
Writer: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date:  8/1/2014

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