Movies, for a variety of reasons, are hard to make. They’re even harder to get right. Science fiction and fantasy are also hard to get right — in addition to all the other challenges of storytelling, they require much more imagination and invention than fiction based on reality or history. This, in large part, accounts for the truth of Sturgeon’s Law.
So it’s not often that a science fiction movie gets all the notes exactly right. Many are lucky if they have just a few good ones that make the film worth seeing. A very rare few get enough right to make an SF film notable. (For my money, Elysium and Oblivion are recent good examples, and Ender’s Game and Edge of Tomorrow weren’t bad.)
And once in a blue moon a film gets it so right that the horse sings.
Guardians of the Galaxy (written and directed by James Gunn) may not be the best science fiction film ever made, but it’s absolutely, hands down, the most enjoyable, most sheer fun, SF film I’ve seen in a good long time. And it gets so many notes right that it sings a wonderful song.
I have to go back all the way to Galaxy Quest to find an SF film that’s this much fun, that’s this much of a love letter to science fiction fans.
It also reminds me a bit of The Fifth Element, another shiny gem for true SF fans. (The Nebula character looks to have stepped right out of a Mœbius comic, and some of the production design elements remind me of his work.)
Guardians of the Galaxy is, first of all, a Marvel movie based on a Marvel comic. As a general rule, that’s an automatic point in its favor — most Marvel movies have been, at the least, pretty watchable (albeit some more than others).
More importantly — in fact, crucially importantly to my mind — Guardians doesn’t take itself seriously. At all.
This is a mistake that DC makes over and over with its Superman and Batman movies. You simply cannot take seriously a guy who runs around in brightly colored underwear and a cape (especially the cape).
I think it’s one of the things that distinguishes the better Marvel movies from the lesser ones. The Avengers movies (especially the Iron Man ones) seem to have a bit of tongue implanted firmly in cheek — something the X-Men movies often lack.
It may also be that too much super power creates something so preposterous there’s just no way to pull it off successfully in a live-action movie (without some self-awareness). I wonder if this isn’t what plagues Hulk and X-Men as well as Superman.
But I’ve long believed the primary ingredient for success is the vision of the uncompromising artist.
It’s a hard thing to define, but the vision has to be pure. That is, it needs to come from the heart and be a story the artist is driven to tell. It needs to be based on the artist’s ideas and beliefs, and ideally it needs to be processed through the filter of time.
Steve Martin’s script for L.A. Story reportedly took eight years to write. That’s a long time to hone a vision, and for my money, it’s an almost perfect film with so much richness and texture you have to watch it multiple times to get all there is to get.
(Unfortunately, you almost have to have lived in Los Angeles to really even see all there is to get.)
Guardians of the Galaxy has its original roots in a 1969 Marvel comic that featured a rather different cast of characters. Yondu (and Thanos, who appears in many other Marvel comics) seem to be the only recognizable characters from that version (judging by the Wiki articles — I’ve never read any of these).
The comic was rebooted in 2008, and this version has the characters we meet in the film.
[I seem to have passed my graphic novel phase — it’s been years since I bought any — but I think I’m going to get back into it just to get these!]
The point is there is a rich and diverse history behind the characters and settings. That’s not a necessary condition, let alone a sufficient one (the Superman movies being an almost canonical example), but it’s a very helpful one in providing a library of material as foundation.
The key is what a filmmaker does with it.
As I said above, not taking yourself too seriously is crucial.
Guardians starts off on a pretty serious note. In 1988, a young Peter Quill attends the death of his mother (apparently from cancer). Some interesting seeds are planted in that scene — hints that Peter’s absent father might be something different.
Within moments of his mother’s death, Peter runs away from the hospital only to be abducted by an alien spaceship. This comprises the film’s prologue and seemingly sets the tone dial to “serious.”
Then we flash forward 26 years to a scene right out of Indiana Jones (in space). Star Lord (a grown Peter Quill) arrives on a barren planet to steal The Orb (a classic MacGuffin). What begins as a serious sequence behind the opening titles immediately catapults us into the movie’s real tone: action, fun, and humor — with an 80s soundtrack!
It’s a movie filled with deliberate references to other movies, most of them science fiction. I just mentioned Indiana Jones, and Peter is part Jones, part James Kirk (he even has a green-skinned girlfriend), part Han Solo, and part Marty McFly. Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation fame) is Peter Quill, and the casting there is perfect.
The green-skinned girlfriend, of course, is Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana (Uhura in the rebooted Star Trek, Neytiri in Avatar, and a kick-ass assassin in Colombiana, to name just a few). I’m glad she finally got to be in a good science fiction film!
Part of what makes the film work so well is the same thing that makes Galaxy Quest work so well (in addition to the humor and SF references): An amazing ensemble cast that clicks and doesn’t have that calculated by committee feel.
It’s a band of damaged misfits and odd-ball loners that feels organic and authentic. Delightfully, two of them are entirely CGI characters, and those two are major additions, not detractions or distractions. (Put that in your Jar Jar Binks and smoke it.)
(Vin Diesel blew the doors off voicing Groot. By the end of the movie you can practically understand what he’s saying.) Both characters have depth and texture that makes them awesome.
That’s true of all the characters, even the villains and semi-villains (like Yondu). Ronan and Nebula are as good as any comic book villains I’ve seen (both having some interesting texture notes), and Thanos… well, I can’t wait to see him again (and I want that floating chair)!
So, humor, self-awareness, lots of fun SF references: Check! Laugh out loud funny: Check! Well-developed, textured, interesting, fun characters: Check and double-check! Exciting action sequences: Check! Richly imagined future and great production designs: Way check!
And a funny thing: for a balls-to-the-wall science fiction comedy based on a comic, the science is surprisingly good. Time and again I found myself thinking, “Yeah! That’s actually not bad!”
It’s not perfect by any stretch. Groot’s slamming a whole row of “storm troopers” back and forth defies any possible mechanical leverage physics, and there are other places that make you go, “Hey, wait a minute!”
But for the kind of movie it is, I thought the science part of the science fiction was excellent.
Neither is it a perfect movie plot-wise, but very few are, especially movies like this. The thing is, most of the holes are small and forgivable. I’ve seen the movie twice in as many weeks, and thoroughly enjoyed it both times. I’d happily watch it again and may even buy it (which I almost never do any more). There are some bits I’d like to examine frame by frame.
Bottom line: Guardians of the Galaxy has earned a spot among my favorite science fiction films.
It’s a rare gem of a movie where nearly everything comes together. I think a lot of that is due to James Gunn having a singular and very interesting vision (check out his film, Super, for instance).
One last thing. Be sure you stay for the end credits. The cookie at the end is hysterical! Assuming you know who Howard is. (Incidentally, the dog is also a Marvel character and one from the Guardian comic.)
Added May 10 @ 11:30 CST:
One thing you’ll notice among their videos is that sometimes they clearly see the film as not good (they really lambasted the Twilight series, for example), but sometimes they clearly liked the film and are just having fun. Guardians was one of those cases.