So, here’s the TL;DR version. The movie is fun. It’s funny, colorful, action-packed and fast-paced with characters you care about. If you like fun science fiction, you’ll love this. I recommend it.
Now for those of you who really want to dig in, let’s grab a shovel.
Plot summary first, you can skip down to the commentary if you've already seen the film:
Peter Quill is a boy who runs from his mother’s death (cancer is implied), figuratively and literally. He is abducted by aliens and grows up a pistol-packing outlaw who romances hot alien women and flies around in his own private spaceship, stealing stuff and getting in fights*.
Actually I want to stop right there for a second. That is a story every red-blooded man in the word wants to see. Hell, wants to live. The box office receipts bear that out.
Moving on: the movie opens with Quill going to an alien world to salvage an ancient artifact also sought by a genocidal maniac named Ronan. Ronan hates the Xandarian empire and wants to wipe it out. Ronan sends Gamora, a supposed assassin and adopted daughter of a very, very bad demigod named Thantos. Ronan wants the artifact to give to Thantos. Thantos has promised to destroy the planet Xandar for him in return.
Another quick break there…that’s pretty high stakes. Destroying an entire planet full of mostly-innocent people. Dude.
Quill has, however, backstabbed his former (?) kidnapper by stealing the artifact and selling it himself. That kidnapper, a pirate named Yondu, places a bounty on Quill’s head. That brings us to Rocket Racoon and Groot, a surgically modified raccoon and an intelligent, mobile tree. These two are working as bounty hunters on Xandar, spot Quill and attack him. However Gamora is also on hand trying to recover the artifact and a three-sided fight breaks out which gets everyone thrown into prison.
In prison, they meet a Ronan-hating killing machine called Drax. Drax’s family was murdered by Roana and he recognizes Gamora as Ronan’s minion. However, Gamora no longer wishes to serve Ronan and was planning to sell the artifact to a very odd, very rich person called The Collector. She offers to split the huge reward for the artifact among them if they help her escape. The group escapes in an epic, violent jailbreak and heads to a giant floating skull up in space that’s being mined from the inside out to sell the artifact.
I want to break here again. The movie shows us a skull big enough to have its own atmosphere inside of it. Not only does that show us that the universe is strange, it reinforces how small the heroes are in comparison. Also, the visuals of the mining colony inside of the skull are breathtaking. It’s just…cool.
Inside the head, the group squabbles. Drax gets drunk and calls Ronan, desiring nothing more than revenge and…not thinking things through very well. Meanwhile the artifact is taken to the Collector where it is revealed as one of the Infinity Stones, this one is powerful enough to destroy a planet in one blow but it so powerful that attempting to wield it basically is a death sentence unless you are inhumanly powerful.
Which…Ronan happens to be. Ronan shows up with part of his army, takes the stone from the heroes and beats Drax within an inch of his life. At the same time. Yondu shows up to capture Peter Quill. After some fast talking, Peter convinces Yondu they have a plan to steal the stone back. Yondu spares his life in promise of the Infinity Stone after defeating Ronan.
The heroes pursue Ronan with Yondu’s fleet to Xandar where he is preparing to destroy the planet with the Infinity Stone himself, abandoning his deal with Thantos. The heroes break into Ronan’s ship and attempt to assassinate him.
The Xandarians attempt and fail to hold Ronan’s ship back.
Ronan crash-lands onto Xandar but the heroes destroy the war hammer that Ronan has embedded the Infinity Stone into. Quill grabs it and, with the aid of his friends, manages to hold the stone long enough to destroy Ronan and save Xandar and the galaxy.
In the end, Peter and his fellow Guardians are pardoned of their crimes, thanked for saving the world and fly off to new adventrues.
Friends…this is how it’s done.
If you know the movie, you’ll know I skimmed over some characters and complications but that’s the basic plot. VERY misfit heroes do the right thing despite overwhelming odds. Evil is confronted and defeated. It’s a simple story and, unlike the Hobbit trilogy, it doesn’t mess up the plot or the theme.
Casting to start with. Chris Pratt is charming, roguish and masculine as Peter Quill. He’s not quite as smooth, skillful or charming as he thinks he is…but he’s not a man-child. Rocket and Groot steal the show with some of the best dialog in the film. Mad props to Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper (and the on-set actors) as Rocket. Even David Bautista as Drax is given some good lines and comedy as someone who takes everything literally. Characters. IF you have good characters, your audience will want to follow them. This movie pulled of character better than any I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Tone also needs a hat tip. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, thanks to James Gunn, the director and Nicole Perlman who worked with him on the screenplay. This movie played serious would have been deadly dull. The squabbling among the heroes made for good drama and tension and kept us laughing. The light tone was spiked with some pain. Peter’s mother dies before his eyes, unable to take her hand** Drax had his wife and daughter murdered before his eyes. Rocket was ripped apart and experimented on. Likewise Gamora, tonally weakest of the characters, had her entire race destroyed by Thantos. Only Groot seems to lack a dark side, but his childlike attitude doesn’t make him any less powerful and intimidating in a fight.
Visuals were top notch. We live in a world where, with sufficient money, anything you imagine can be shown. So the question is increasingly, what do you choose to show? Guardians of the Galaxy chooses to show a bright, colorful, optimistic world. There are a lot of tangents we could follow about design language, how Ronan’s ships and allies seemed to use stone or how the lights in Knowhere show a technicolor Christmas tree of beauty. I do want to give a special nod of the head in how the CGI was used to make things, impossible things, feel real. Rocket looks like a real raccoon. With a gun. Wearing a jumpsuit. And it all looks legit!
Theme and story are what make this movie go past simple Buck Rogers popcorn entertainment. The bad guys here are at least unambiguously bad. The heroes chose risk even against the odds of success because opposing evil is the right thing to do. For once, the heroes, or one at least, actually sacrifices themselves for their friends. Which is the meaning of true love and of true heroism if you ask me. The heroes choose not to be selfish in the end, even if some come into it kicking and screaming. And though they change, they aren’t utterly transformed. Drax is still violent and dangerous. Rocket is still amoral and scheming. Peter is still roguish enough to want to do good and bad mixed together. Good wins, evil loses. This is primal stuff and weather the fans realize it or not, they absorb that theme and it resonates with the best part of us.
No movie is perfect and the Guardians does have flaws. I want to touch on them each out of fairness and in the hope that I and other writers might avoid similar mistakes in our own work.
Ronan is at best a serviceable villain. He does have a very early ‘kick the dog’ moment in his introduction where he murders a captured Xandarian Nova Centurion and monologues about his refusal to accept the peace treaty between his people and Xandar. But he has little complexity. He wants to destroy Xandar. He did lose is father and grandfather to war with Xandar but that’s a thin sheet to wrap around him. He’s arrogant, petulant and ambitious. However, he is easy to hate and he comes off as powerful enough to be a credible threat. But the bad guys in this movie are easily the weakest point of the film. And that’s not to be taken lightly. Your protagonist is only as powerful as the threats they face. Ronan is physically a threat but doesn’t feel real enough to be really imposing.
Gamora and Zoe Saldana didn’t work either. I don’t know what’s awry here, if it’s casting or writing…or both. Gamora in the comics is sex and death incarnate. The kind of woman who could unashamedly wear a black bikini with a hood and pull it off. In the comic you get the feeling she revels in slaughter and would rock the world of any man she took to bed (and there was never any doubt that it would be her idea). Zoe is very, very pretty but she did not pull this character off. Even in the movie, she’s supposed to be an assassin, you know, someone who murders someone for pay or by command. But we see none of that. She isn’t established as a character before she’s turning her coat against Ronan. Also, for someone who murders people (remember, she’s an assassin, not a soldier) she seems obsessed with ‘honor’ and honorable behavior. That is more than a little discordant. Either another actress should have been cast or her backstory should have been tinkered with more so she’s shown to have a strong moral code. As it is, she is just as flat as Ronan and Zoe’s performance comes off stilted and wooden.
The dance-off at the end really, really walks the line, and it may even cross it going into silly territory. The idea of Peter Quill interrupting Ronan’s murderous soliloquy with karaoke and dancing…doesn’t quite work. It is a distraction and it is sold as that if you watch the movie closely you can see the heroes exchanging glances prior to Quill getting up and dancing. And, I have to admit, choosing to get up and confront Ronan after he crashed to earth in a starship and survived does show some courage. But it is just…silly. And I say that as a man who has been pressed into performing the ‘naked troll maneuver’ as a way of distracting a security guard.
Ultimately, this movie made me happy. When I was depressed or down, I could go to the theater, pay my $11 and sit with a smile on my face for two solid hours. That is so, so rare. Recommended without reservations .
*He also wants people to call him Star Lord, with mixed success.
**Which I bought. When my grandmother was dying, I didn’t want to touch her, I was about the same age. Death and dying scared me.