As of yesterday, I have now seen Guardians of the Galaxy three times–
And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with the movie.
Okay, okay, put down the pitch-forks and the nooses– let me re-phrase.
In reality there’s nothing seriously wrong with the movie– it is actually, in my opinion, the best movie of the summer and possibly the year. It’s funny, and heartfelt, dramatic where it needs to be and irreverent in exactly the right places. The cast has chemistry out the wazoo. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Starlord plays off Zoe Saldana’s Gamora perfectly, quarreling while building up a mutual attraction that feels genuine precisely because it never goes too far. Dave Bautista is great as Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s voicing of Rocket is excellent. The action keeps you going, although the final battle might be just a little too frantic. Certainly, three viewings have allowed me to catch more detail, including all the pop culture references.
The movie overall is just well-written, with plenty of character and dialogue that keeps you interested. You believe that this is a hodgepodge band of losers who find a new purpose with each other, and it makes you wish the next movie was in the can and coming soon. As a child of the Seventies, I appreciated the soundtrack of golden oldies, which are not only perfectly deployed in the film but reinforce the emotional core of Peter’s character.
(mild spoilers from here on in)
Each time I’ve seen the film, I have caught myself feeling oddly dissatisfied at different points in the story. It took me a while to figure out what was bugging me, but in the end I got there.
This movie is based on a comic.
And at this point you’re probably saying, Oh, no duh– why am I reading this nimrod…?
Allow me to explain.
It has often been said that science-fiction does not really work in comic books. The confines of panels on a page somehow make it difficult to convey the vastness of space or the intricacies of technology. There are exceptions, but all too often “sci-fi” in comics has been more metaphorical than scientific.
It seems that some of this metaphorical approach leaked into Guardians. When the team/gang approaches the outlaw mining operation called Knowhere, it is described as the gargantuan head of a dead “Celestial being”. This is straight out of the comic, but to me it is on the same level as the giant space slug in The Empire Strikes Back— both throw me out of the narrative. My suspension of disbelief, at least for a moment, goes spung. Some other elements of Guardians do the same thing to me– for example, the shiny, colorful Xandar, which looks like one big mall. And, dammit, Yondo, the chief Ravager and oddball father-figure to Peter, has a piece of plastic down the middle of his head (alien Mohawk?), which probably worked far better in the comic than it does on-screen, where I found it really distracting. In general, with the exception of Rocket and Groot, the aliens in the film don’t give me much of a sense of being, well, alien. I found myself almost wishing for the Brood to show up.
To sum up, the fault lies not in the movie, but in my own damn pickiness. I have a prejudice for the gritty, and a preference for sci-fi that tries to create a workaday world that at least looks scientifically plausible. Guardians does that in some places, but falls down in others.
Science fiction is hard; movie science-fiction, I have concluded, is doubly so. Getting right the feel of the visuals of a future or alien universe is difficult. There are movies and TV shows that do this well– Alien/Aliens, Blade Runner, and Firefly (although, admittedly, all of these films and shows had various issues with plausibility). But all too often writers, directors and production design folk don’t make the effort to do it right, and instead they fall back on tropes that suggest alien-ness (plastic Mohawks) or futurity (Xandar Mall). There is just enough of this in Guardians to leave me with a sense of unease and disappointment, at least with the visuals.
I willingly admit that this carping is unfair, especially regarding a movie that didn’t set out to be Blade Runner in the first place. The film, in general, is really well-done– for example, for all my dislike of Yondo’s appearance, his character is great, and I loved Michael Rooker’s performance. My complaints do not destroy my enjoyment of the movie– but the little things that nag me about it leave me wanting just a little bit more of something– more grit, more plausibility, a universe that is a bit more gray and shadow, like the universe I live in. It keeps me from giving the movie a perfect 5 trolls (you have to see the movie), but more like 4.75.
In the end, as a review, everyone should take this with a grain of salt. I doubt very many people even noticed the issues I had with the picture. This basically comes down to a statement about my own personal taste in sci-fi, and an acknowledgment that I am a picky, grumpy, contrarian old fart who wants things his way and complains loudly when he doesn’t get it.
I will eventually, I expect, get over it. And then there’s Interstellar. 🙂