Friday, October 16, 2015

Film Friday: Guardians of the Galaxy (2015)

I’m definitely souring on comic book films. Most are nothing more than dull origin stories that we’ve seen over and over. The same plot points happen like clockwork in each film. The writing is derivative. And they end with a massive CGI fight scene that lasts longer than a colonoscopy. Guardians of the Galaxy is that too, but it’s such a fun film that you don’t notice.

This is the story of how the Guardians of the Galaxy became a team. The story begins by introducing us to Peter Quill as a child. His mother dies. As she dies, he gets kidnapped by a group of space pirates who will reappear periodically throughout the story. They’re kind of like space trash and they kept threatening to eat him as a child. He is now understandably pissed off at them.
Anyways, after this introduction, the film really begins as we see Quill (Chris Pratt), now an adult, hunt for a mysterious orb. He finds it on a ruined world, but finds himself attacked by bad guys. He barely escapes with the orb, but soon finds himself hunted by bounty hunters, including a green girl (Zoe Saldana as Gamora) who is the daughter of one of the bad guys (Ronan) and a genetically engineered gun-nut raccoon named Rocket and his tree-like friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). The orb is being sought by Ronan so he can blow up the universe or something.
Anyhoo, they get thrown into jail by Wreck-It Ralph. They become allies. The orb gets stolen several times and everything ends in a big shootout as Ronan comes to destroy the planet Xandar. Blah blah.

Look, the plot doesn’t matter. It’s a MacGuffin. This film is about the characters, the actors and the dialog. Oh, and the soundtrack.

Why This Film Worked

I really enjoyed this film. Why? Because this film was a ton of fun. It was a joy to watch, unlike so much else these days which feels like a chore. Its jokes were funny. Its scenes were clever and entertaining, even if the plot itself was generic. And the characters were likable and interesting and exactly the kind of characters you want to know more about. In fact, I was sorely tempted to buy some of the comics after the film ended... something I’ve never felt after other comic book films.

So how did this happen?

The answer, in a word, is writing. James Gunn and Nicole Perlman simply wrote the hell out of every scene. In most comic book movies, the scenes are just a construct to hit the required plot points as you watch the character arcs while you wait for the final fight scene. In other words, the “plot” is to see the characters go from slackers to heroes or losers to villains. The action points are just meant to highlight how they’ve changed. This film is different. In this film, the writers cared about each individual scene and they worked hard to make each scene stand on its own as entertainment. The result is that everything is memorable and fun.
Consider how we meet Quill. The scene opens as a fairly decent, if slightly clichéd search of alien ruins. It almost feels like Alien when they are searching the alien ship. This would be enough for most writers. They would have Quill attacked, whip out a one-liner and escape. This film doesn’t do that. Instead, Quill puts a walkman on his head and starts dancing. It’s a great dance too which makes you want to get up and dance with him. Then he grabs a space rat and uses it like a microphone as he kicks another rat. This is hilarious and it tells you right away about the tone of the film and the character... he’s a goofball and a scoundrel.

But there’s one more piece coming. The bad guys come after him and he needs to escape. Rather than give a one-liner and escape or kick all their butts, we get this funny moment where he shows us how calm and cool and kick-ass he is. Then he tells them his criminal name is “Starlord.” You expect them to be impressed, he certainly does. But they aren’t. They’ve never heard of him, and the disappointed look on his face is priceless. Then he escapes, with the orb, in a way which foreshadows the ending.

Scene after scene is like this: surprising, funny and insightful. And each scene builds the movie through foreshadowing. This has become a lost art in Hollywood today.
The film is full of fantastic lines too. Rocket, for example, is a quotable machine: “That’s the first thing you’ve said that isn’t batsh*t crazy!” “Hello... idiots!” and so on. His lines are the type you can’t wait to get home and use on your friends.

The other characters are highly quotable too. I love this exchange between Rocket and another character named Drax, who is humorless. Rocket tells Quill that Drax’s people are entirely literal and do not understand metaphors: “Metaphors go over his head.” Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too good. I would catch it.” There is a brilliant exchange with Wreck-It Ralph too about the use of the word “asshole” in a communiqué. And again, so on.
It is a real joy in this age of forgettable films written by marketing departments to find a film with lines that you find yourself repeating for days (or weeks) later.

All of these great lines, by the way, do an amazing job of telling you who these characters are and creating the relationships between them that make you want more. Add to this that the characters are an interesting mix – they’re not all the same character in different costumes as you typically get. The effects are decent. The fight scenes aren’t too long. And the soundtrack is fantastic. And what you get here is a really entertaining movie. This is perhaps the best entry in the superhero film category in a decade.



Kit said...

I remember reading in Scott Eyman's biography of Louis B. Meyer, Lion of Hollywood, that in the Studio Era, especially at MGM the emphasis in writing was very much on the scenes instead of the plot as a whole.

For a clear, non-MGM example, look at The Big Sleep. That movie's plot is famous for how convoluted it is, yet it holds you.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's a good point and a great example. I think it's interesting, thinking about it, how many modern films really don't care about the scenes. They are selling a character arc (e.g. slacker to hero) and the details are all fuzzy and just transactional. This is one of the few recent films I can think of where each scene mattered to the writers and the result was a movie that is memorable and fun.

Kit said...

Back them, Hollywood was drawing heavily from theater. That may have been a factor.

Orson Welles got his start partly in theater, most famously, the all-black "Voodoo Macbeth".

Anonymous said...

The soundtrack of this movie is very important to it's success. This is the first movie of this type that my wife and enjoyed and wanted to see more than once, and it is all down to the soundtrack. She had to have the soundtrack cd the day after we first saw it.

Anonymous said...

This movie and The Lego Movie cemented me as a Chris Pratt fan. To the point that it was the only reason I went to see Jurassic World in the theaters. Which didn't save the film, but helped me to rank it as the least boring sequel.

ScottDS said...

I'm souring on them, too. The template/format is pretty obvious at this point and I've realized I just don't care. And the hype does nothing for me. The idea of waiting on line for hours at Comic-Con just to get a 30-second soundbite from the guy playing "Alien #2" doesn't do it for me anymore.

And in response, people say, "Well, it's no different from when Hollywood made westerns!" And to them, I say, "Yeah, but the makers of Shane didn't risk sacrificing narrative cohesion to jam in a reference to The Searchers which wouldn't pay off till three years later!"

Having said all that, I enjoyed this movie very much. I know the director has cited films like Back to the Future and the Indy films as references but it's great when that love actually translates to the screen. (As opposed to someone like, say, Judd Apatow, who may say he's a Harold Ramis fan, but has obviously learned nothing from the man's films.)

The thing I really love is that this one in particular has resonated with children. I've read more than a couple stories about developmentally-disabled kids who found something in common with Groot or Drax and it's all very heartwarming.

Oh, and Michael Rooker kicks ass!

P.S. I really need to find out how James Gunn does that thing with his hair. I'd like to give that look a try one day.

Anonymous said...

My hair does that. Just wet it and go to bed. :)

djskit said...

This film just exuded joy from start to finish. That's what sets is apart from others.

Another element is the visuals. My wife missed this movie in the theaters so we rented on cable. It just wasn't the same on the "small screen".

The scene where the title flashes in frame filling letters with Peter dancing in the foreground hits you and lets you know you are in for a good time. On TV, not so much.

The establishing shot of the Milano flying through Knowhere, it's just a split second but the visual is stunning and you don't want it to end combined with Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" is my favorite moment. On TV is passes and you barely notice it.

And the final scene with Marvin Gaye singing and the looks between Gamora and Peter with the song lyrics perfectly communicating the confirmation of trust between them - very satisfying.

And how versatile is Bradley Cooper?

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, The soundtrack was definitely key. This is the best soundtrack in years and they used it well too, it wasn't just in the background.

This movie made me a fan of Pratt as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Apatow never learned anything from Ramis. He just does gross stuff and lets the actor keep going until they get bored.

In terms of Westerns, people who look down on Westerns have likely never watched them. They seem to think Westerns are all made by formula and are totally cliche, but that's not at all true. Westerns were very varied, coming in the form of everything from romance to drama to war films to vigilante movies to buddy comedies.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, LOL! Yep. That's what mine does too when I sleep on it.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, The minute he starts dancing, you know this film is going to be fun. And it remains fun throughout. That is so rare these days!

You're right about the visuals too. They have some great ones in this film. I like the aliens too. They are all unique and have different personalities, which is rather rare in science fiction.

Kit said...


"In terms of Westerns, people who look down on Westerns have likely never watched them. They seem to think Westerns are all made by formula and are totally cliche, but that's not at all true. Westerns were very varied, coming in the form of everything from romance to drama to war films to vigilante movies to buddy comedies."

Sergio Leone is (at least partly) to blame for this. He made Westerns dark and cynics. With heroes barely better than the villains and, since the 1960s our yardstick for complexity and depth in characters has been how unlivable they are, characters were only interesting if they were also kind of bad.

Go by IMDB, Far too many fans of his movies praise them by criticizing the earlier John Wayne, Ford, and Hawks westerns as simplistic stories of good and evil with simple heroes who all wear "white hats" (cough-Searchers-cough).

Also, attacking westerns has become an easy way for the coastal elites to bad mouth Middle America.

Which also ties in with that old plague among critics, genre-snobbery.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I wasn't directly comparing comic book movies to westerns - I was comparing the popularity of comic book movies to the popularity of westerns back in the day.

But back then, Hollywood made a greater variety of movies and didn't put all their eggs in one basket like they do now!

Outlaw13 said...

Fun is the word that fits this movie to a t. I remember sitting in the theater grinning like an idiot, as each new scene was just as good as the last. WE ARE GROOT!

shawn said...

When I saw it in the theater, I enjoyed it, but wasn't bowled over by it like many people. I thought that Ronan was a dull, un-impressive, under developed villian. I've grown to like the movie more upon repeated viewings- it is a lot of fun, still, I wish they did more with Ronan to make him seem a little more formidable.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I agree that mocking Westerns has definitely become a way for elitists to look down on the rest of the country.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's funny to me that so many people sneer at old Hollywood as this uniform, generic place that never took chances, but when you look at older movies, you see an amazing variety... a variety which just doesn't exist today.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, Same here. This film made me happy in scene after scene.

I love how Rocket can interpret "I am Groot" to mean different things!

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I wouldn't say that this film was a top film or anything like that, but it was a lot of fun and one of the better films in years.

Backthrow said...

Guess I'll have to be the lone, dissenting voice... I didn't hate Guardians of the Galaxy, it wasn't a bad movie, but like so much else movie-wise these days, it didn't particularly resonate with me. It seemed more like a simulation of a "fun" movie, rather than actually being a genuinely fun movie to me, though it was more visually colorful than average. Honestly, I suspect some of the extra good will the film has received is due to people suffering standard-superhero overload and wanting a lighthearted space adventure, with Farscape and long gone from TV and Lucas' inability to make worthwhile Star Wars films (this before people had seen much of any preview material from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and getting their hopes up). I dunno.... maybe it would've helped if I saw this at age 12 or something.

I liked the opening to GotG, where our young hero-to-be gets whisked off into space after visiting his dying mother in the hospital, and Michael Rooker's "whistle-dart" gizmo, but the rest to me was either just mildly entertaining, or things that have already been done to death in other films (admittedly, I've seen more than the average person in that regard, so I'm jaded).

Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand... now that's a fun movie! : )

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