Movies: I Am Groot!

GotG-1Movies, 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.

Galaxy QuestI 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.

The Fifth ElementThis 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.

LA StoryIt’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).

GotG-0

1969 Guardians of the Galaxy

The comic was rebooted in 2008, and this version has the characters we meet in the film.

(And more: Captain Marvel is on the Guardians team in the comic; Iron Man and Adam Warlock are former members.) This incarnation of the Guardians exists in Marvel comics to the present day.

[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.

GotG-2

2008 Guardians of the Galaxy

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.

GotG-3

Neytiri Uhura Gamora!

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.)

GotG-4

Rocket Racoon

Rocket Racoon and Groot alone are worth the price of admission.

(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!

GotG-5

I am Groot!

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.

Howard

Howard (the Duck)

Bottom line: Guardians of the Galaxy has earned a spot among my favorite science fiction films.

It’s up there with Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element and Watchmen and Moon and 12 Monkeys and Dark City and Zardoz. It’s easily the best Marvel movie I’ve seen.

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:

I’m a huge fan of the Everything Wrong With… videos made by the Cinema Sins YouTube site. They have a great ability to hit the nail on the head. Naturally they did one for Guardians:

I also like the Screen Junkies site and their Honest Trailers videos. They also are delightfully on point, and they also (of course) did one for Guardians:

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.

Rightfully so!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “Movies: I Am Groot!

  • dianasschwenk

    Smitty, I’m guessing you go to Comic Con when it comes to your city? ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Actually, I don’t. I’m a fan, but not fanish, if you see what I mean. I don’t align with any crowds, not even the crowds for people who don’t align with most crowds! :\

      • dianasschwenk

        I was so sure you would go. What do I know, eh?

        My friend’s daughter just went to the one here in Calgary – she loves it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        A bunch of us used to go to the Science Fiction Convention here. But I found them mainly to be big parties and, for many, an excuse to go hog-wild and crazy. That’s not a bad thing, but I’m kind of past that stage. There was a lot of science fiction, but there was a lot else going on, too. (Put it this way: free condoms were available in multiple locations.)

        I did go to one with my Trekkie cousin very long ago just to see Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy appear on stage together. It was (one of?) the first time they’d done so since Star Trek (the original) went off the air, so it was kind of a big deal. But I’m not quite as enthralled with actors as I am with directors, writers, and originators, so it was interesting but ultimately not that big a deal to me.

        I’ve always thought there’s a difference between being a fan of something — in just really, really liking it a lot — and worshiping it.

        In The Truth About Cats and Dogs (which is a fun sex-reversed version of Cyrano de Bergerac), Janeane Garofalo (who plays a veterinarian slash radio host) has a great line about, “You should love your pets, but not love your pets.” I’ve always thought that applied to a lot of things in life.

        And, full disclosure, as is often the case, maybe it’s just me. I like to say parents were “fundamentalist Lutherans.” The Lutheran part made them very mellow about religion (despite my dad even being a pastor) — they certainly let me find my way on my own without much pressure. But the “fundamentalist” part gave them some funny ideas…

        For instance, I never believed in Santa Claus. My parents considered treating him as even pretend real to be “worshiping false idols,” so Santa, Tooth Fairy, and Easter Bunny, were always painted as fairy tales with no actual reality. (In some ways, I’ve always thought tricking your kids that way was a little cruel.)

        This probably explains something Significant about me. o_O

      • dianasschwenk

        Makes sense to me Smitty. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        P.S. Happy Mother’s Day!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Fun Fact: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill, aka “Star Lord”) is married to Anna Faris (who rocked the Scary Movie movies and stars in the TV series Mom along with Allison Janney).

    • Lady from Manila

      I watched “GotG” twice in the theaters. I wrote about how I really liked the film months ago — the action scenes, the humor, the music, the special effects, the actors, etc. I am not into Zoe Saldana’s looks, though.

      Prior to that, when an FB acquaintance posted as to who we think is the sexiest among the actors playing superheroes named Chris — e.g. Chris Hemsworth of Thor, Chris Evans of Captain America, etc. I chose Hemsworth. That was before I laid eyes on the humorous Pratt. You got it — I’ve had a change of heart. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I’m a little late to the party in talking about most films. I wait until they come around on HBO or Showtime. I’m still waiting for Interstellar.

        Have you ever seen the TV show Parks and Recreation? Chris Pratt is in that one — it’s what “put him on the map.” He’s also been in Moneyball and a few other films.

    • Lady from Manila

      Ah wait, I failed to say things right. I didn’t write any review of the film. My stats moved probably because of the misunderstanding. It was a mere incidental mention in a post of how the movie extremely delighted me and how I swooned over Chris Pratt’s talent and, um, his abs.

      The tidbits you provided on Pratts I also enthusiastically picked up from a few showbiz mags.
      I don’t think any of GotG’s forthcoming sequels could outshine the original.

      Guess who’s a bit timid in admitting she didn’t get what was briefly shown after the end credits? 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I am concerned about the sequels. At the very least, the “new car smell” is gone, so it’s even harder for sequels to rise to the level of the original. There can be a “by the numbers” approach that sucks the life out of a story, or they can try too hard to hit the same notes (which usually results in them missing most of them).

        But the public — in its usual mindless drone way — has shown repeatedly that it’s very comfortable going back to the well (over and over and over). In an email to a friend I just quoted an old Charles Schultz Peanuts cartoon with Linus proclaiming: “I love mankind… it’s people I can’t stand.” I sometimes wonder that shouldn’t be the other way around. Individual people are — generally speaking — interesting and likeable, but sometimes “mankind” really pisses me off. (Or course, so do people sometimes, so maybe it’s a wash.)

        Howard the Duck was a famously bad — utterly unwatchable — film. It’s widely considered one of the worst films ever made. It’s just bad, not endearingly bad (like an Ed Wood film). Painfully bad. “I can’t watch this!” bad. (George Lucas produced it and his company did a lot of the work on it.)

        It’s based on Howard the Duck, a Marvel cartoon character. The cookie features Howard, who was apparently one of the Collector’s collected items. (The dog licking the Collector is Cosmo, the telepathic Soviet space dog, a Marvel character from the 2008 Guardians reboot comic series.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Guardians was a lot of fun. Because it didn’t take itself too seriously, my inner science geek stayed off. (As it does with most Marvel movies.)

    I never read Guardians in comic book form. It came long after my comic days. I did read Star Lord in the 70s, but he was a much more serious character back then. I liked this version better.

    Rocket reminds me of a character from the Perry Rhodan series named Pucky. (At least in the old English translations; I think he was called something else in the German originals.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, you do pretty much have to go full steel cable disbelief suspension with comic book movies. (Which is probably why some of the details and flourishes in Guardians surprised me by their quality.)

      I find they can also be hard to critique on many plot and thematic elements, since it’s really the comic that provides those elements. The way the bad guys show up at just the worst moment or always seem to second-guess the good guys’ plans. From a storytelling point of view it’s often absurd or over-the-top melodramatic, but that’s comics for ya.

      Those Everything Wrong With… videos, often when they do comic book, or movies based on SF/Fantasy books, they’re often actually pointing out flaws in the source material. (Heh. It just occurred to me how, when they did the LotR movies, a lot of their points were about things Tolkien did rather than Jackson. But when they did the Hobbit films, it was much more about the excesses of Peter Jackson. We now have two visionary directors who made noteworthy — if not ground-breaking — trilogies only to follow them up with another that is a Serious Offense To Humanity. Not to mention an Abomination to Science Fiction. It’s weird that’s even possible.)

      And on that count I’m a little worried about sequels to Guardians. More of them don’t live up to the first than do.

      I’ve never read any of the Perry Rhodan series. Somehow we just never crossed paths. They were never readily available here in the USA.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        One thing I’ve learned since writing that Nano novel is that just about every fiction story has plot holes, if you look hard enough, particularly in SF&F with world building often involved. I think it’s just the nature of fiction.

        On Perry Rhodan, there was an English translation series in the 70s of the first 100 or so issues, put out by Ace, but lamentably it didn’t last. I discovered them in used bookstores in the 80s and consumed them like candy, although often in completely the wrong order. Looking back, a lot of the stories were silly, although also fun, and they were still more scientifically accurate than just about anything in film or TV.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…just about every fiction story has plot holes…”

        Indeed! Exactly the point I made in my opening paragraph! Fiction, by its very nature, is hard to get right. Toss in the imagination component of speculative fiction, and the job is exponentially harder.

        “[The Perry Rhodan stories] were still more scientifically accurate than just about anything in film or TV.”

        That doesn’t surprise me. Most literate (even graphic novel) SF is. That’s partially due to the storytelling constraints of film (just consider how poorly much ordinary fiction translates) and partially due to there still being a fairly large division between SF film and TV fans versus fans of SF literature. (Even comic book fans are something of a separate group, although obviously all three overlap.)

        It may also be due to a difference between filmmakers and authors. The former often have different goals and, in many cases, don’t have the background in science or science fiction that many authors do. (That’s why I love it when a director clearly has both love and knowledge of SF. It’s why Zach Snyder’s Watchmen was so awesome — he clearly knew, loved, and understood, the source material.)

        The Wiki article suggested the Rhodan series was still extant. I followed the link to the official (German) website, and it clearly is. I can’t read German, but I can sure recognize “2015”!

        One more new thing to explore if I ever actually need new things to explore. (That list is already fairly long, and I’m still pretty busy exploring the stuff I’m into now!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Oh, Perry Rhodan is still going strong in Germany, where a new issue comes out *weekly*, so they’re on issue 3000 or something. If you know German, you’d be in business. Lamentably, there haven’t been any English translations since the Ace ones, at least none that I know of.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Pity. Double pity, really, in that I took German for four years in high school (under the impression I’d be better able to access scientific and philosophical writings) and somehow managed to not really learn any of it at all.

        The irony is that I’m fluent in more than a dozen programming and computer languages, and conversant in twice as many more, but I’ve never been able to learn another spoken language despite multiple attempts at Spanish (and four years of high school German). I suspect my congenital severe hearing loss has something to do with that. Hard to learn what you can’t really hear.

        At least the Ace versions are out there if I ever feel so inclined! (I do think I’m more likely to buy all the Guardians collections first, though.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Well, you’ve done more than me on the language front. I also know a bunch of programming languages, but as far as spoken languages, I’m English only.

        The Ace books were a lot of fun. Each issue had a Perry Rhodan novella (some combined multiple German issues into one novel), an unrelated SF short story, and often a science article. I read them in my teenage years, so not sure what I’d think of them today. I remember lots of space battles.

        Thinking about it now, the one thing I do recall being uneasy with in the series was that, in the story, Perry Rhodan essentially became a dictator over Earth; with him and certain members of his entourage being made immortal by a god like alien, but it was all fine because they were the heroes. Pretty sure that arrangement, and the way it was portrayed, would bother me a lot more today.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Well, you’ve done more than me on the language front.”

        Well, career programmer for 20 years and an avid hobby programmer for over 40, so you’d think I’d have learned something! XD

        “Perry Rhodan essentially became a dictator over Earth”

        It does raise interesting issues about benevolent dictatorships and use of power by the “good guys.”

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