Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Droll sci-fi hijinks

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.1.14

Call this one Marvel Lite.

The newest chapter in this comics-to-film universe has the playful atmosphere of Josh Whedon’s Firefly or George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, complete with a group of rag-tag sorta-heroes led by a tousled, good ol’ boy who feels like a blend between Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Although Earth-based to one significant degree, most of the action takes place in a galaxy far, far away, with a looming threat to an entire planet and its sizable population.

When it comes time to bust out of a celestial prison, our misfit heroes — clockwise from top
left, Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot, Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket
Raccoon — reluctantly set aside interpersonal squabbles in order to work together. Note,
however, that working together successfully is an entirely different matter...
But the danger lies not from a Death Star-like weapon, but instead from a supremely powerful alien entity known only as Thanos, who likely will be watching next summer, when Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers battle a Big Bad dubbed Ultron.

Meanwhile, the formidable Thanos serves here as puppet master, sending malevolent minions to do his bidding. Which they do, with cheerfully evil glee.

But that’s getting ahead of things; we first must submit to necessary back-story courtesy of scripters James Gunn (who also directs) and Nicole Perlman, who have a good sense of the scruffy, well-worn universe concocted in the 2008 comic book series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Gunn and Perlman haven’t used quite all of the characters employed by Abnett and Lanning in their misfit not-quite-a-team, but the quintet on hand here certainly satisfies.

Things begin with Earth-born Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), whose presence in these distant reaches of the universe remains a mystery for another time (and the obligatory sequel). Quill, a smuggler and thief, conducts his heists while hoppin’ and boppin’ to a carefully preserved mix tape of “awesome hits” made by his mother, back before she died, and played on his carefully preserved Walkman. (Cue the first of this soundtrack’s many 1970s and ’80s rockers and power anthems. You’ll want the soundtrack.)

Quill’s current contract takes him to the dead and deserted planet of Morag, where he finds a strange metal orb also coveted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), an associate of Ronan (Lee Pace), hired by the aforementioned Thanos. The fast-talking Quill manages to escape with his prize, only to irritate both his own boss — the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) — and the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), another of Ronan’s emissaries, who tries to snatch the orb herself.

This skirmish takes place on the sumptuous, impeccably civilized world of Xandar, where bounty hunters Rocket and Groot are just as eager to catch Quill and collect the reward on his head. Unfortunately, the escalating fracas results in all four being arrested and sent to a massive space prison known as the Kyln.

Relations between our protagonists are tense at best. The hot-tempered Rocket — a genetically altered, cybernetically enhanced talking raccoon — wants nothing to do with these two-legged beings, unless a reward is involved; Quill just wants to escape with the orb, while Gamora has her own plans for that same device. Worse yet, The Kyln’s many prisoners include Drax (wrestling star Dave Bautista), a quiet but massive brute who blames Ronan for the death of his wife and child, and therefore yearns to rip Gamora to shreds, simply for being in the villain’s employ.

Ah, but is she actually in Ronan’s service? In truth, Gamora may have redemptive plans of her own.

What eventually becomes obvious, however, is that the orb — subject of so much interest — contains a gem that will give Ronan the power to destroy a planet. He fully intends to exercise this power on Xandar, wiping out its entire population.

With this far greater menace to confront, knowing that the orb must be kept from Ronan, our reluctant heroes set aside mutual antagonism and bond for the greater good.

First, though, they’ve gotta bust outta the Kyln...

Gunn’s jokey, even juvenile tone is a bit off-putting at first, particularly with respect to Pratt’s handling of Quill; the guy is given to clumsy efforts at savoir-faire and the sort of corny lines one would expect from a desperate guy trying to bag a chick at a bar. Pratt lacks the natural grace and aw-shucks suaveness that Harrison Ford brought to both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and the eye-rolling one-liners don’t help.

That said, both Pratt and Gunn’s tone eventually grow on us, particularly when the wise-cracking Rocket Raccoon enters the mix. Rocket is voiced with long-suffering irritation by Bradley Cooper, who imbues this unlikely warrior with just as much personality as his two-legged companions.

But the massive, tree-like Groot is even more interesting: a being able to control its growth, with a fascinating number of plant-like talents and skills that serve both offensive and defensive purposes. The deep-voiced Groot speaks only three words throughout, courtesy of Vin Diesel: “I ... am ... Groot.” The increasingly droll gag is that Rocket can “translate” his vegetative companion’s meanings, depending on how those three words are parsed and intoned (much the way Han Solo always understands Chewbacca).

More to the point, the CGI team grants Groot an astonishing degree of personality, despite the character’s limited dialogue and absence of “conventional” facial expressions. Granted, we don’t want any of these characters to come to a bad end, once things turn nasty, but our hearts and minds become most heavily emotionally invested in Groot ... and that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Between her work on Avatar and the re-booted Star Trek — with an additional nod toward her cold-blooded killer in 2011’s Colombiana — Saldana has become the actress of choice, when it comes to intelligent, tough-talking, sci-fi action babes. She slides into Gamora’s green skin with an equally engaging blend of cool reserve and lithe physicality (although a few of her long-distance leaps are credibility stretchers).

Bautista is a quiet hoot as the generally stoic Drax, whose race takes language literally, and therefore fails to comprehend humor, metaphors or double-entendres. That, too, becomes a cute running gag. Bautista is more impressive for his mere presence than acting skills, but — like all of Drax’s companions — the big lug gets under our skin.

Pace, best known as the elf Thranduil in the Hobbit trilogy, and for his sweet-natured leading role in TV’s short-lived (and much lamented) Pushing Daisies, is convincingly scary as Ronan: as “bad as bad can get,” according to Gunn, “a complete and utter sociopath who thrills on the pain of others.”

Hounsou fares less well as Korath, an under-developed part that anybody could have played; Hounsou brings nothing to the part. Glenn Close seems miscast as Nova Prime, head of Xandar’s police force; her line-readings are stiff and uncomfortable, and we can’t shake the suspicion that Close feels she is slumming.

Karen Gillian, well remembered as the much-adored Amy Pond in BBC’s Doctor Who, is suitably chilling as the blue-skinned Nebula: the lethal, merciless yin to Gamora’s yang. Like Gamora, Nebula is another of Thanos’ “daughters” in Ronan’s temporary employ; unlike Gamora, Nebula has no problem with her evil deed-doing. The narrative begs for an all-out melee between these two warriors, and the third act doesn’t disappoint.

Rooker does well as the serio-comic Yondu, a “ravager” who alternately admires Quill, and wants to kill him. It’s a complicated, neo-paternal relationship, and Rooker has a lot of fun with the role’s duality. Finally, an all but unrecognized Benicio Del Toro turns up briefly as The Collector, an aesthete and keeper of the galaxy’s largest collection of interstellar fauna, relics and species. He also wants the metallic orb, if only for display.

Pratt certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice for Quill; the actor is best known for TV work on Everwood, The O.C. and Parks and Recreation, with occasional unmemorable supporting turns in films such as Jennifer’s Body, Moneyball and Her. Indeed, Pratt lacks the “it factor” that served (for example) Tom Selleck so well, when he made the jump from small to large screen.

Pratt’s tone here is a bit too smug and indifferent, as if he can’t quite believe that he ever landed a starring role in such a huge production. Then again, that boyish insouciance feels right for Quill, and Pratt doesn’t embarrass himself. Even so, he remains the weakest link in this quintet of unenthusiastic heroes.

Production designer Charles Wood has a blast with the various ports of call, particularly the cage-like setting of the Kyln, and the sumptuous cityscapes on Xandar (inspired by the architecture of Santiago Calatrava). The most intriguing location, however, is Knowhere, a massive mining colony built inside the decapitated head of a long-dead being known as a Celestial.

And it’s hard not to see images of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon in the Milano, Quill’s equally beloved spacecraft.

Visual effects supervisors Jonathan Fawkner and Kyle McCulloch deliver equally sumptuous work, whether making Rocket look like what we’d expect from a walking, talking raccoon, or choreographing the climactic battle between small Nova Corps fighters and Ronan’s far larger, darkly malevolent spaceship.

On the other hand, Tyler Bates’ score is disappointing: no more than orchestral backdrop, with little in the way of interwoven individual character themes.

Editors Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne and Craig Wood keep the pace lively, often eliciting a giggle or two simply from the way one of cinematographer Ben Davis’ scenes is cut.

Gunn has an intriguing pedigree, having cut his directing and writing teeth on low-rent comedy splatter flicks, including a stint at the notorious Troma Studios, before going “upscale” on scripts for action comedies such as The Specials and both Scooby-Doo entries. In short, Gunn’s background gives no evidence that he could have handled a project as huge as this one ... and yet he does an acceptable job. I suspect his low-budget days now are a thing of the very distant past.

Once it gets going, and once we become accustomed to the sometimes silly tone, Guardians of the Galaxy turns into a highly enjoyable, crowd-pleasing romp. It’s also a solid precursor to next summer’s Avengers 2, and — if the stars align — it’ll be nice to see these five characters again, as well.

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