Even though the technology wouldn’t have been available to do the visuals justice, the attitude and atmosphere of Guardians of the Galaxy strongly suggest it would have been better had it been made thirty years ago, when audiences were far more willing to embrace goofy action/sci-fi films in which emphasis was placed on stunts and special effects rather than plot and character development. Lord knows that any movie with a talking raccoon and a human/tree hybrid is impossible to take seriously, although it doesn’t help if the raccoon is an angry, trigger-happy potty mouth, nor that the human/tree is a big, dumb lug incapable of saying anything apart from his own name. The inclusion of audio cassette tapes, a walkman, a soundtrack consisting of 1970s pop songs, and references to Kevin Bacon and his starring role in Footloose certainly don’t help matters much.
The tenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy, based on the Marvel comic book series of the same name, is the first one I’ve seen that doesn’t work. It plays like a cross between a serial space opera and any of the superhero cartoon TV programs of the 1980s, although, stylistically, it knows the words better than the music. Despite being a pleasure to look at, the art direction and special effects showing tremendous imagination, no real effort is made to tell a story, and the character development is limited to hokey, cliché conventions. The dialogue is generally broken into two categories: (1) Comedic one-liners between characters who argue over the most inane things; (2) expository babbling about events, places, and people that audiences outside comic-book circles are unlikely to understand.
So far as I can tell, the plot concerns the quest to obtain a metal orb, which contains a mineral or stone powerful enough to destroy entire planets. Hot on its trail is a ragtag band of intergalactic outlaws and assassins. There’s Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a wiseass space pirate who goes by the nickname Star-Lord. There’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned alien warrior with lethal fighting skills (thank God she doesn’t have a brother named Sodom). There’s Drax (Dave Bautista), a cross between The Thing and The Incredible Hulk who, apart from seeking vengeance for the murder of his family, is of an alien race that doesn’t understand the concept of metaphors. We also have the raccoon and the half-tree, already mentioned. The former is Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically-modified mercenary and weapons expert. The latter is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who has mastered growing things spontaneously from his bark-covered limbs and yet can only communicate by growling out the sentence, “I … am … Groot.”
Naturally, there are side characters who are pursuing the leads for possession of the metal orb, although I’ll be damned if I can remember why or even what their names are. The main villain, played by an unrecognizable Lee Pace, delivers every line as if auditioning for a Star Wars parody, his demonic voice booming, his words a litany of power-hungry declarations. There’s a blue-skinned alien pirate played by Michael Rooker, who I think abducted Quill from Earth as a boy and raised him as his own. With his racist southern drawl and frequent belittling of Quill by calling him “boy,” I was more than a little disturbed by Rooker’s character. There are also minor appearances by Benicio del Toro, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, and, of all people, Glenn Close, although their significance to the plot went unseen by me. Perhaps I won’t find out until they make appearances in future Marvel Universe films.
It’s amazing, how the filmmakers take every opportunity to turn a regular scene into a drawn-out action extravaganza. Several sequences document an elaborate escape from an outer space prison complex, and several more depict aerial attacks, with spacepods and warrior ships trying to blast each other to Kingdom Come. The bright, clear process of IMAX 3D notwithstanding, many of these scenes are so frenetic and choppy that they attack more than immerse, and are liable to induce headaches. It’s also amazing, how potentially meaningful passages of dialogue are transformed into throwaway comedic vignettes. As an example, I distinctly remember a conversation between Quill and the gang; it first devolves into an argument over what percentage of a plan Quill has devised, and then further devolves into a shouting match, the sincerity of Rocket’s laughter in question.
A subplot intended to explain why Quill is the way he is confuses more than it clarifies, to say nothing of how clunky and melodramatic is it compared to the rest of Guardians of the Galaxy. I know we see him as a boy in 1988, and that he witnesses his mother succumbing to an unnamed illness in a hospital room, and that he proceeds to run out into a field and is promptly abducted by a UFO. A discernible reason for why he was abducted isn’t given until the final five minutes of the film, and even then, we’re left with more questions than answers. The same can be said about his mother, whose posthumous gift to her son feels more like a narrative afterthought than the start of a story arc. But for a truly stunning display of unnecessary plotting, look no further than the post-credit sequence. I will not reveal what new character is featured. I will say that, given this character’s previous brush with the movies, it points to a bleak future for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.