Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Dancing Among the Stars

Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, and Dave Bautista in Guardians of the Galaxy

After I saw the film, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, directed by James Gunn) that went something like this:

Me: I have no idea of how I'm going to write about this film. There's nothing there to write about!

Friend: Yeah...it's pretty lightweight.

Me: I suppose I could cobble something together about how it's got a queer subtext and it's about how people who are cast out of their own families are forced to form families of choice.

Friend: Hmm...I could see that.

Me: Man, this movie is shallow.

Upon reflection, I think that the formation of families of choice is exactly what the film is about, only in a painfully heterosexual way. I might even be offended by the appropriation if the movie were more interested in that theme rather than in blowing shit up real good. As it is, the pleasures of Guardians of the Galaxy are all on the surface. There's not really anything wrong with that, I guess.

The story follows Peter Quill, who styles himself as "Star-Lord." We first see Quill as a child, waiting on his mother's bedside as she dies of cancer. She gives him a present to be opened when his father comes to get him. Someone does come to get him, but it's not his father. It's an alien space ship who whisk the boy away. Next, we see him as an adult. He's engaged in a nefarious caper in which he "accquires" a mysterious orb from the wreckage of a vanished civilization on a desolate planet. He's still listening to the mix tape his mother gave him as a child. It's his only link to his homeworld. He's not the only one after the orb. He has a run-in with Korath the Pursuer, who is the lackey of the renegade Kree warlord, Ronan. Quill escapes Korath with relative ease and is off to Xandar to fence the orb. Unfortunately for him, there's a bounty on his head, set by Yondu, the alien who originally abducted and raised Quill as a space pirate. Quill, it seems, has double crossed Yondu, who is also after the orb. The bounty entices the bounty hunters Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a genetically altered racoon with a fondness for big guns and explosions. Groot is a walking tree creature whose repartee consists of "I am Groot." He's a gentle soul. Also on the hunt is Gamora, the daughter of the mad titan, Thanos, who is the ultimate buyer for the Orb. Ronan desires the destruction of Xandar in retribution for a peace treaty with the Kree. He has an overdeveloped sense of grievance. Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill converge on Xandar, all working at cross purposes, and all of them are captured by the Nova Corps, who imprison them in the Kyln, an off-planet prison. The four of them temporarily join forces to form an escape plan. Gamora, unfortunately, has enemies, not least of whom is Drax the Destroyer, who blames her his families' deaths during Ronan's depredations in the name of her father. He wants revenge, but Quill intervenes long for her to convince him that she's in the process of betraying Ronan and Thanos. Drax falls into their company with the expectation that they'll lead him to Ronan. The five of them execute their escape and hotfoot it to Knowhere, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, where Gamora has a buyer for the Orb. The buyer is The Collector, who reveals the contents of the Orb as an Infinity Stone, capable of leveling planets. One of The Collector's "assistants," however, grabs the stone as a means of escaping him, causing great destruction in her wake. Meanwhile, Ronan has tracked them to Knowhere and during a dogfight between Gamora and her sister, Nebula, gains the Orb and takes off toward Xandar. Quill and Gamora are captured by Yondu, leaving Drax, Rocket, and Groot to free them. But Quill can't stand idly by while billions of people are murdered by Ronan. He formulates a plan to save Xandar and retrieve the Orb. Unfortunately, the plan is suicidal...

Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

At its core, this is a whiz bang. A fireworks display. It rushes through its plot with a kind of giddy acceleration, rarely stopping for any character-building beyond the quick strokes it uses to delineate its character types. Star-Lord? Lovable rogue, displaced misfit. Gamora? Assassin with a heart of gold. Rocket? Wiseguy thug with a heart of gold. Drax? Revenge-driven thug with a heart of gold. Groot? Groot. Groot is what you get if you cross Chewbacca with Hodor from Game of Thrones with E. T. He's an innocent. It's to the film's credit that even though it's drawn its characters with broad fingerstrokes, it's also outfitted them with enough "quirks" to make them fun companions. A lot of this is up to the actors. One of the key components of Marvel's success over the last decade has been their casting department. They've identified actors for their lead characters who exude the "it" of movie stars and match the tone of their characters exactly. When they haven't had an available "name," they've manufactured their own movie stars. That's what they've done with Chris Pratt, who would have been no one's choice as an action hero based on his previous career, and yet he inhabits Peter Quill like he was born to it. Indeed, each of the heroes is performed as they've been conceived. This is especially true of the voice performances by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as Rocket and Groot respectively. Cooper's Rocket is an elaboration on Joe Pesci's characters in Goodfellas and Casino, which at first seems like a contrapunctual characterization for a cute anthropomorphic animal, but works a wonder on the character by making him just salty enough to go down. I've mentioned in the past that Cooper has a face that inspires me to fantasies of violence, and Guardians sidesteps this by removing his physical presence from the film entirely. Diesel has a harder task, given that his only line of dialogue is "I am Groot." The inflections matter, and this is a close cousin to his voice performance in The Iron Giant. Drax is a harder character to like, and wrestler Dave Bautista's physical presence is intimidating, but the film wisely emphasizes the non-physical quirks. His penchant for literalism is the source of a great deal of comedy. Zoe Saldana could play Gamora in her sleep--she's a combination of her characters in Star Trek, Avatar, and Columiana when you get right down to it. She's the weak link in the chain. She's a badass, sure, but she's a badass as fetish figure. She's "the girl," the tomboy along with the boys on an adventure that's really more about them. Oh, the film doesn't do anything egregiously stupid. It even passes the Bechdel test when you get right down to it. But it's disappointing on this front, especially given that the comics on which the film is based have additional female members in the cast, some of whom are decidedly non-traditional heroines.*

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy

They say that the soul of drama is watching characters change, and at its most fundamental level, this film obeys that rule. The characters do change. Ordinarily, the quality of a drama is not just in the change itself, but in the mechanism by which the change happens. In this regard, Guardians of the Galaxy is...uncomplicated. Indeed, it's a classic theatrical melodrama in which the villains' only motivation is to be villainous and the heroes only motivation is to stop the villains from being villainous. Oh, the film makes a nod to moral complexity in the relationship between Quill and Yondu, but that's a side narrative that doesn't really impact the changes the film wants to ring on its central quintet. Lee Pace's Ronan the Accuser isn't mustachioed, but if he was, he would surely be twirling it, while Karen Gillan's Nebula doesn't get any screen time at all to work out her sibling rivalry with Gamora nor suggest any Electra complex with her father. Thanos's role is to lurk in the background as an existential threat, but he has less than four minutes of screen time. That's not enough to make an impression. This is all disappointing coming from a comics tradition of more complex villainy. None of these characters are in the same league as Tom Hiddleston's Loki for dramatic possibilities, to say nothing of Magneto or Doctor Doom. But then, this iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't have the same kind of wealth of rogues as Marvel's other characters.

Karen Gillan in Guardians of the Galaxy

There are a lot of other supporting characters in this film and they range from the negligible to the eccentric. Certainly, Glenn Close's Nova Prime is the most negligible role the actress has ever taken, while John C. Riley's Rhomann Dey seems like he belongs in another movie. Benicio Del Toro's version of The Collector, on the other hand, seems entirely of a piece. He's a familiar type: the merchant who has deep knowledge and dispenses it for a price. He's the Sydney Greenstreet character in Casablanca, as filtered through Liberace, and his environs are a polyglot of movie otherwheres, from Blade Runner's Los Angeles to Bartertown. The Collector, I should mention, is a character I never, ever expected to see in a movie, but then, I could say the same thing about a lot of the stuff in this movie.

Benicio Del Toro in Guardians of the Galaxy

For all the deficiencies this has as a drama, though, it makes up for it in its production. This film fills the screen with eye-drugging vistas and clever details that will require a week of freeze-framing the DVD to fully catalog. This is space opera at its most operatic. It's meant to dazzle you and it largely succeeds. In an era where every film has great special effects, this film has great design. And it has wondrous moments of pure weirdness. The occupation of the miners at Nowhere. The fact that Nowhere is situated in the severed head of some vast celestial being. The Collector's exegesis of the origins of the Infinity Stones. The indication of a vast universe of strange creatures. Marvel succeeds in this film where it only dabbled in the Thor films of suggesting great cosmic vistas populated by terrifying powers and vast empires. It has footage of a fucking Celestial laying waste to a planet and it might have walked straight out of a Jack Kirby panel. That made me sit up an take notice. These kinds of details stroke the pleasure centers of the comics-loving kid I still am at heart.

Guardians of the Galaxy

The relative success of Guardians of the Galaxy stems from its refusal to take any of its cosmic grandeur seriously. At heart, this is a comedy, and it gets its laughs honestly enough. The recurring way the film contrasts its sci fi backdrop with a soundtrack of classic rock is hilarious in itself, particularly if you view it as a puncturing of seventies-era classic rock's penchant for using sci fi art for album covers. Roger Dean or Hipgnosis would recognize the source of this contrast within ten minutes of watching the film. The film saves its best joke for last, though. The credit cookies in Marvel's films usually indulge in franchise building, but this one keeps the future of Marvel a mystery in favor a gag that sent me to the parking lot muttering, "fucking XXXXXX the goddamn XXXX!"

Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in Guardians of the Galaxy

The film distances itself from the grimdark superhero by including a couple of scenes of almost lyrical sweetness. Groot provides most of these. As I've said, he's an innocent, and as such, he's capable of making these kinds of gestures, whether the fireflies he conjures, the flower he grows for a little girl, or the lone instance where he goes off his usual script, he's the antithesis of a character like Nolan's Batman. He's not wounded. He's not lashing out. Everything he does is for friendship. I like that. That attitude infects the rest of the movie, such that Rocket's concern for Groot is entirely genuine in spite of the cynicism of his fundamental conception (A racoon with a love of destruction and mayhem). This makes Rocket more endearing than he might have been as a joke character. There's a scene late in the movie that grants Rocket some of that sweetness, too. Much as the film wants to be about Star-Lord, the heart of the movie is the relationship between Rocket and Groot. Not that Star-Lord isn't endearing. His solution to confronting Ronan on his own is...novel...while Chris Pratt invests him with just enough charm and humane concern to make him a worthy character on which to center the movie. If there's not already a licensee ready to make dancing Groot toys--if you've seen the film, you'll know what I mean--then someone is leaving money on the table. This is a film that lends itself to toys, actually, but it's not cynical about it. It's not The Transformers or anything like that.

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, and Vin Diesel in Guardians of the Galaxy

So, yeah, It's a good time. If I seem disappointed that it's not a more complex experience, it's only a mild disappointment. I don't take "fun" for granted when it comes to movies. After a couple of seasons in which superhero entertainments have drifted closer and closer to the the grimdark fallacy, this is a film that punctures those kinds of pretensions. And while that by itself isn't necessarily enough to make the film valuable, it does just enough well to make for a grand time at the theater.

*There's an ongoing debate in comics about the diversity of Marvel and DC's universes, particularly regarding women. This film will do nothing to quiet demands for a female-led superhero movie while it also shouldn't escape criticism for other diversity issues. In particular, the decision to exclude characters like Phyla-Vell and Moondragon seems a bit of a slap, given that in ten movies, Marvel has included no GLBT characters at all. And, yeah, we have Zoe Saldana playing a badass woman of color, but that color is green. The Nova Corp is painfully white. Korath the Pursuer is a black man, but he's a negligible character. This is disappointing given the opportunity this set of characters represents.

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