Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The film opens with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a young boy on Earth in the late 1980s, listening to a cassette titled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” He waits outside of a hospital room when his father walks out to tell him that his mother wants to see him. A family stands around the cancer-ridden woman on the bed, who presents a final gift to her son before passing away. Peter, devastated that he didn’t get to say goodbye properly, cries and runs outside, where he’s lifted by a spaceship and leaves terrestrial Earth. This is Marvel’s first cold open, making the story feel like its own narrative and displacing it entirely from the realm of superheroes like Iron Man and the Hulk. Peter acts as a space bandit when the narrative picks up later, traversing from planet to planet as Star Lord to claim various artifacts and sell them to the highest bidder. His most recent endeavor involves a highly protected orb that everyone in the galaxy seems to be after. So what does it contain?
Turns out it holds a mysterious gem known as an Infinity Stone, one of six in the universe that gives the holder a seemingly endless amount of energy and power. This is an important component of the Marvel comics, a pursuit led by Thanos, a character introduced in the credits of The Avengers. He was the force behind the attack on Earth and now the one guiding Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree who aims to destroy the planet of Xandar. Xandar is the planet where most of the core characters interact and the home of space-protecting NOVA, led by characters played by Glenn Close and John C. Reilly. There’s a whole lot of plot going forward that I won’t divulge, since it is a dense narrative full of many twists and side plots. As Quill goes to prison for attempting to steal the artifact, he meets up with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an engineered soldier; Drax (Dave Bautista), a warrior aiming for vengeance; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a gun-wielding raccoon that loves the thrill of the moment; and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a slow-minded but emotionally thoughtful tree.
James Gunn’s film relies entirely on the dynamic between those five misfits. They each have their quirks, with Peter being introduced as a womanizer and arrogant man and Drax as an attack-first, think-second individual that doesn’t understand a lick of sarcasm or metaphors. Gamora is torn between her family divide and Rocket and Groot are outcasts in a world that doesn’t accept them. The reason all of these character types work together is not only the screenplay put together by Gunn and Co., but also the lead performance from Chris Pratt. Peter is grounded in a level of emotion from the film’s opening scene that pervades his every action for the rest of the film. Pratt embodies that perfectly, pushing down all of his emotions to the far reaches of his soul until they have to emerge. He’s a hilarious actor, best known for his screwball work on Parks and Recreation, and he brings that creativity to the table here.
The comedy is developed visually and around the characters, attributing to the film’s frantically controlled pace. There are many thrillingly staged scenes, with one in particular involving the intricate planning of their escape from prison only for the background to show Groot slowly preparing to mess everything up. Another one demonstrates the demented humor of Rocket, who insists that Peter go after others’ personal items needed for various tasks when they aren’t required at all, only existing for Rocket’s amusement. Cooper is fantastic as the voice of Rocket, and Saldana is an underrated actress that makes Gamora a tragically flawed, likable, and strong female character. Visually the film is joyous, a saturated, densely-colored blast of spectacular special effects that utilizes 3D well, even if it remains inconsequential. Guardians of the Galaxy is unlike any other superhero film ever made, for it’s a character-driven, narratively unhinged, extravagantly rendered explosion of creativity and wonder.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)