Galaxy High! Guardians Of The Galaxy Reviewed

Mat Colegate blasts off with the latest comic book adaptation from the Marvel stable (Note: While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers a few tiny hints are unavoidable. Proceed with caution)

Marvel’s announcement that the next of their globe-eating properties to be given the big screen treatment would be Guardians Of The Galaxy was generally met with bafflement by the cinema going masses and outright derision from the geek contingent – myself included. So far The House That Kirby Built have avoided any outright duds by keeping things accessible – generally setting the stories on earth (or Midgard, if you prefer) and not overcomplicating matters by needlessly referencing the 50-odd years of continuity that can make coming to the comics so off putting for new readers. The very existence of a Guardians Of The Galaxy film seemed to crush those parameters in one fell swoop. One of the bench marks of Marvel’s ‘Cosmic’ universe – i.e. they’re set in space and not New York – the comics are notable for their ludicrously complicated chronology, far-flung galactic scale and utterly bonkers characters. The cinema going public had already proved itself more than capable of coping with a weaponised billionaire, a Nordic space God and a freeze dried super soldier, but a kleptomaniac talking raccoon? The fear was that it might prove a bit too outré for your regular multiplex goer. I mean, a green bloke with anger management issues and curiously stretchy trousers is one thing, but a monosyllabic talking tree? In space? That’s just silly, isn’t it?

When the trailer arrived it looked as if director James Gunn – creator of the hilarious melt-fest Slither (2006) and yet another of Marvel’s unconventional film helming choices following Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and Shane Black (Iron Man 3) – was looking to go for laughs rather than pretentious cosmic solemnity, a choice that seemed a good way to get audiences on board. However, despite a chorus of fan-ellujahs, those initial trailers looked a bit desperate. The laboured gags and the choice of music – ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, for Christ’s sake! – seemed to suggest that GotG was all set to be a wacky, slightly irritating ride: Space Balls with a Star Wars-size budget. “Humbug…”, read the thought bubble above my head, as I sniffily turned back to reading my Adam Warlock comics, “…if Marvel think that the public are going to fall for that then they may as well have made a ruddy Howard The Duck film. Again”.

But face front True Believers, because your ever lovin’ scribe has been made to look a total tool! And I’d be bothered about it, too, if the finished result wasn’t the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since I-don’t-know-when. Guardians Of The Galaxy is an edge of the seat galactic toboggan ride from beginning to end, and it’s funny as all hell to boot.

What sets GotG apart from its Summer tent-pole brethren is its tremendous sense of pace and sure-footed confidence. Gunn has given himself a lot of elements to juggle – awe-inspiring locations, piratical derring-do, vast clashes between good and evil, pinpoint accurate slapstick – and he handles it all with total class; all the pieces fitting neatly together with very little in the way of flab. It’s a complex, fully-formed universe that is evoked, and the film’s comedic elements are never allowed to get in the way of this sense of complete immersion.

It helps that the cast he has to work with are never less than excellent. Chris Pratt’s performance as Peter Quill (or Starlord, as he styles himself much to the bemusement of everyone around him) is pitch perfect and his supporting cast are all given a chance to shine by Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman’s citrus sharp script. Bradley Cooper’s turn as the prospectively deal breaking Rocket Raccoon is similarly humanising (verminising?) and sympathetic, and professional wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer – a warrior from a race impervious to metaphor – gets to flash muscle and deliver some of the film’s funniest lines with equal aplomb. Special mention should be given to Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, who is just as adept at kicking Kree ass as she is at delivering cosmically nonsensical dialogue with just the right amount of a twinkle in her eye. Even Vin Diesel’s Groot (a giant CGI tree beast that says precisely three whole words during the entire film) is charm personified, and all the characters, big and small, get a chance to shine – a line here, a glance there – which humanises the whole business and makes sure that the audience are all aboard for the fun.

And what an adventure it is. An escape from a galactic deep security prison! The colossal decapitated head of an ancient cosmic deity! The most thrilling space ship battle since the Death Star trench! Even touches of the kind of kid-friendly horror that used to make us all peep through our fingers at the climax of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Indeed, in terms of overall tone, Spielberg’s archaeological adventure may well be the best point of reference – there’s a similar mix of grandeur, ballsy adventure and wise-cracking. But Gunn is drawing from a far larger set of influences, that of those crackly VHS space adventures of the 1980s that he no doubt grew up on. I spotted references to everything from Flight Of The Navigator and The Last Star Fighter to Flash Gordon (indeed such was the resemblance to the latter at one point that I half expected Queen to start blasting away in the background).

And, speaking of which, it’s music that provides one of the film’s main hooks. GotG‘s use of catchy 70s pop tunes – an affectation that could have come across as supremely annoying – is novel, cute and ingrained into the fabric of the story itself, providing a neat contrast to those ever-circling orchestral scores that seem to be slathered willy nilly over most sci-fi blockbusters. It’s indicative of the whole film’s freshness of approach. You sense that the creative team took a step back from the genre, removed everything that had been done to death and prioritised making deep space feel new again.

Are there problems? Well, some. Lee Pace’s Ronan isn’t allowed to do much more than be a stock baddy and some of the sets do suffer from being generically dark and dingy, but every time the film threatens to capsize under the weight of its ambition it’ll suddenly right itself with a cracking one liner. It’s over seriousness that tends to unstick this kind of adventure and over serious is one thing that GotG is emphatically not. Listen closely and you can hear the frantic sound of J.J. Abrams and company re-tooling their Star Wars script to fit in more jokes. Of course it’s ridiculous to call a massive budget affair like GotG a plucky underdog, but it’s a film all about the heroic qualities of the schmucky loser, and as such its status as an unlikely game-changer is entirely appropriate. It’s up to Hollywood to respond, all that you have to do is strap yourself in for the best ride in the cosmos.

If you enjoy Guardians Of The Galaxy (and I’m pretty certain you will, unless you’re some manner of joyless spawn of the Dread Dormammu) then please consider donating to the health care of Rocket Raccoon co-creator Bill Mantlo, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 1992 and suffered traumatic brain injury. Bill has to get by on the most minimal insurance and as a result any money he receives would be a big help in his continued fight. You can donate here:

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