'Guardians of the Galaxy': Film Review

A well-matched ensemble rises to the challenge of launching a heroic origin film with distinctive style, abundant thrills and no shortage of humor. 

James Gunn's assured foray into the Marvel universe stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista as a ragtag team of would-be galactic protectors.

From the golden-typefaced title to the wisecracking dialogue and save-the-universe plotline, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy has been begging comparison to Star Wars from its initial marketing push (particularly the venerable Episode IV — A New Hope). Unsurprisingly, Guardians is no Star Wars, but it turns out that’s actually good news.

Since Disney will be rebooting the classic franchise with Episode VII next year anyway, James Gunn’s inventive space opera, sourcing somewhat minor characters from the Marvel universe, could serve as an appropriate warm-up — or even launch a franchise of its own eventually. Guardians should see robust response in its opening days and stands to capitalize significantly overseas.

After an efficient setup showing Peter Quill’s 1988 abduction from Earth by humanoid alien Yondu (Michael Rooker), leader of the space bandits known as Ravagers, the plot skips forward 26 years to catch up with the adult Quill aka “Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt), now in service to his captors. Yondu has tasked Quill with stealing a mysterious silver orb, hidden on an abandoned, lifeless planet, where he’s forced to evade soldiers sent to retrieve the same sphere by Ronan (Lee Pace).

A ruthless renegade from the Kree race, Ronan is pursuing the artifact to transfer to his patron Thanos, who in return has vowed to help him press an old vendetta against the planet Xandar. Ronan sends Thanos’ adopted daughter, a highly accomplished, green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), in pursuit of Quill, who plans to sell the sphere for a profit. Once she catches up with him on Xandar, she’s brought up short by bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his arboreal sidekick Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who are seeking the reward Yondu has offered for Quill’s capture. Their tussle over the orb lands them all in prison, which they only manage to escape thanks to fellow convict Drax (Dave Bautista), who joins their crew making a getaway aboard Quill’s spacecraft.

The five reluctantly make a deal to split the sizeable fee from fencing the orb to a contact of Gamora’s, despite the risk of cutting out both Yondu and Ronan. Only after Gamora leads them to The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) do they discover the true purpose of the sphere and the threat it poses to the entire galaxy. The group will have to set aside their differences and unite behind Quill if they expect to save Xandar, and themselves.

Originally introduced into the Marvel universe in a 1969 comic book series as a 31st century team of misfit heroes, Guardians of the Galaxy marks Marvel characters’ first foray into outer-space adventure. It’s fair to note, however, that Guardians bears more than a passing resemblance to Star Wars, not to mention Raiders of the Lost Ark and Joss Whedon’s outlaw sci-fier Serenity.

In actuality, Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman’s screenplay borrows so liberally and lightheartedly from the action-adventure and sci-fi canons that tracking these references becomes one of the film’s minor amusements. Overall, the writers have crafted a well-articulated universe with distinct settings and relatable, compelling characters devoted to a thrilling quest for redemption. Perhaps more significantly, the generous use of situational and physical humor defuses any highbrow sci-fi pretensions that might discourage the genre-averse, although excessive exposition occasionally hinders the action.

Casting is key to the movie’s effectiveness, and while Pratt’s résumé may not immediately scream “action hero,” he dons the mantle with obvious enthusiasm, rounding off Quill’s rough edges with an endearing comedic sensibility. Meanwhile, though Saldana doesn't clue us in on Gamora's inner motivations, the actress — who is no stranger to sci-fi after Avatar and Star Trek — possesses all the action chops required to persuasively portray a deadly assassin, and she makes for a resourceful heroine.

Much of the movie’s scene-stealing is left to Rocket, a CGI character impressively crafted by the Guardians’ crack VFX team and voiced with panache by Cooper. By contrast, Vin Diesel’s Groot repeats only three words of dialogue, relying on intonation for effect. In supporting roles, Del Toro, Djimon Hounsou as Ronan’s lieutenant and John C. Reilly and Glenn Close as Xandar’s homeland defense representatives all contribute admirably.

Ultimately, Gunn’s immersive interpretation of the Guardians’ universe succeeds in large part because of his integration of top-shelf visual effects. Superior execution by cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Charles Wood and the editorial team of Fred Raskin, Craig Wood and Hughes Winborne dynamically underlines Gunn’s vision. Despite occasional disregard for the laws of physics, much of the imagery displayed onscreen is so realistic and thrill-inducing that sometimes even the plot becomes almost secondary during the more intensely visual sequences.

Music also plays a key role throughout the film, with the likes of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love," The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" and David Bowie's “Moonage Daydream" deployed as frequently humorous counterpoints within tense action scenes.

Examples of excess do surface intermittently, with the overlong prison episode and the final battle sequence taking up disproportionate screen time. And credibility may waver a bit when this group of criminals and con artists commits rather too altruistically to saving the galaxy, but semi-serious drama isn’t Guardians’ strong suit anyway.

Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriters: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Jeremy Latcham, Nik Korda, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Editors: Fred Raskin, Craig Wood, Hughes Winborne
Music: Tyler Bates

Rated PG-13, 121 minutes