Best of 2014 – A Challenger Approaches – Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Posted: January 5, 2015 by John U. Millar in Movies
Tags: , , , , , ,

This time last year, J. J. Abrams was to be envied for being handed the least imposing of conceivable challenges; make a Star Wars movie that is better than George Lucas’ prequels. Even allowing for desperate apologetics on how Revenge of the Sith has glimmers of genius, this was not a high hurdle to clear. He simply has to make this film-going experience more enjoyable than rectal surgery with a splinter-filled wooden spatula. One year hence, a shining challenger has emerged. Simply put, Guardians of the Galaxy is the best Star Wars movie released since 1983.

Marvel Studios are on a good run, churning out a series of great films punctuated only by efforts that are “merely” okay. However, they did not stray far beyond the superhero genre until 2014, with a ‘hero flick resembling a metahuman Bourne Identity, and their very first epic space opera. The world of science fiction is dominated by two superstates locked in an endless cold war: the Galactic Republic of Star Wars and Star Trek‘s United Federation of Planets. Between these titanic franchises lies a hermit kingdom of zealous Babylon 5 devotees, and numerous smaller city states extolling StargateBattlestar GalacticaFarscape, and Firefly. This is a well-populated and fiercely territorial landscape. Into this daunting environment came Guardians of the Galaxy, a sci-fi adventure based on a comic book that would have to double its readership to become obscure. Yet, despite this unlikely origin story, Guardians was an outstandingly entertaining and, importantly, human addition to the Marvel oeuvre, perhaps only outshone by the studio’s golden child, The Avengers itself.

The most immediately apparent deficiency in the Star Wars prequels is… well, it’s Jar Jar Binks. But a close second is the bold directorial decision to replace actual characters, with special features like dimensions, with somewhat lifelike facsimilies that Lucas could pose as he pleased and who, with only a few exceptions, are unable to escape the shackles of stilted dialogue and a purely theoretical setting. The shiniest of state-of-the-art special effects cannot mask fatal deficiencies in storytelling and film-making. Director James Gunn has clearly heeded the lessons of the past and has complemented his mildly seizure-inducing cornucopia of visual effects with a cast of enthralling and engaging characters, by equal measures tragic and hilarious. In the spirit of previous bedevilled space renegades crewing ships like SerenityMoya, and even the legendary Falcon herself, these mismatched badasses jack-knife from one disaster to the next, surviving more on lunacy and wit than any great skill, and making absolutely certain to infuriate every potential enemy they can find along the way.

Guardians‘ story has been told before. A great evil wants the mystical whatsit of infinite power. A group of plucky heroes must overcome personality disorders and abysmal interpersonal skills to work as a team to protect the whatsit. And through a combination of spontaneous karaoke and the power of friendship, the good guys triumph. Where Guardians shines is in the pitch-perfect character performances of writing of Whedonesque hilarity and quoteability. Special recognition must go to Chris Pratt, who sheds his doofus-with-a-heart-of-gold persona – as well as a considerable percentage of body fat – to become a worthy leading man, and Dave Bautista, who proves that professional wrestling need not necessarily stunt your acting ability at sub-soap opera standards. The only weak link in the cast is Lee Pace’s villain Ronan, whose worst crime is being generic among vibrant and memorable lifeforms. With acting of this calibre, Guardians is able to recapture what was lost in the Star Wars prequels; dialogue that was as funny as it was organic, and celebrated the simple joy of laughing, crying, and even just bitching at one another.

With Guardians, the Marvel cinematic universe has expanded like never before, but even as a stand-alone film this galaxy feels full of life and is begging to be explored further. In a single film we are tantalised with interplanetary war, colossal cosmic lifeforms, and a true galactic civilisation. No Dune-esque introductory narration or intrusive exposition is necessary. This is a grand adventure that demands a grand scope. Roger Ebert described watching James Cameron’s Avatar as an experience akin to when he first saw Star Wars. Personally, Guardians is the closest I have come to feeling that way once again. This was not the best film of 2014, but it was certainly my favourite. Speaking as a slightly obsessive Star Wars fan, as well as a grizzled and disillusioned veteran of Firefly‘s cancellation, I see Guardians of the Galaxy as the next step in that great old tradition of hilarious, space-cowboy, action-packed science fiction goodness. Your move, Mr. Abrams.

P.S. If you haven’t had enough of violent flashbacks to the countless times George Lucas ruined your childhood, be sure to sit through the credits. I would say that you will not be disappointed, but that is a promise I cannot keep…

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Comments
  1. John & Nancy says:

    For a lad of a certain age, Star Wars changed everything. No longer did one have to make do with low budget weekly offerings of Flash Gordon (courtesy of the Saturday Matinee at the local “flea-pit”) and in later years Star Trek and Space 1999. Although I had to make do with re-runs of Star Trek as budgets wouldn’t stretch to a TV in the house.
    So after countless viewings of Star Wars, I feel it’s only right that I heed your recommendation and find a copy of Guardians of the Galaxy.
    It’s at times like these that I wish I had kept my vast collection of Marvel Comics… Sigh!!

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