Culture

'Guardians of the Galaxy' Looks Like Quite the Sci-Fi Flick Blockbuster, But...

It's a pretender to the throne.

Already this summer we've seen a bevy of films released: some good (Snowpiercer), some bad (Tammy), a lot that were simply kind of okay (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and even a few genuine surprises (Edge of Tomorrow). It doesn't take much to please the summer filmgoer, and I include myself here. All we truly desire are a few moments of escape, a bit of fun and 90 minutes in an air-conditioned theatre.

Guardians of the Galaxy might look like just the ticket: action, a few laughs, and a heaping helping of gonzo science fiction goodness. It might even occasionally sound the part, but allow me to save you time, money and the potential of getting stuck on the SkyTrain when it breaks down again. It's a pretender to the throne.

Guardians starts off in the Marvel Universe once more. Stan Lee makes his usual cameo appearance to the braying of the audience bros, who'll make enough noise so everyone knows they know this is part of the show. (What the bros also know is that if you remain in your seat through 10 minutes of tail credits, you'll be rewarded with an Easter egg. This final scene of every Marvel movie usually alludes to another upcoming sequel, although in Guardians it's slightly more original. I won't tell you what it is, because if I have to sit through an endless crawl of credits to get there, so do you.)

But before we get to the end of the film, let's start at the very beginning. In the opening scene a little kid sits alone in a hospital corridor, listening to his Walkman and sporting a considerable shiner. Meet Peter Quill, who had a large chip on his shoulder even before his mother's untimely death from cancer. When his baldy mother tries to give him one last gift before she kicks it, the kid can't deal. He turns away from her outstretched hand, she dies, he runs. The requisite dead mother cliché is introduced and then whisked away so quickly you barely have time to clear the schmaltz from your nose before Peter, the tow-headed toughie, is himself sucked off of planet Earth by an alien spaceship.

Jump forward 20 odd years, and little Peter (played by a rather buff Chris Pratt) is all grown up but still sporting his Walkman and his mother's gift, a tape labeled "Awesome Mix Volume 1." He's now a petty criminal named Star-Lord who steals on contract and beds alien babes, all with a cool, breezy outlaw vibe lifted directly from Han Solo. It seems Peter Star-Lord has been hired to steal a mysterious orb and sell it off to the highest bidder. Little does he know that the small round ball contains a rather large secret. Other folks want the orb, including some blue villainous types in heavy makeup and cool capes.

Watching this film I had a full-on flashback to my school playground in 1978, when kids would bring their big brother's motorcycle helmets and house towels to school and stalk about in towel capes, trying to channel their inner Darth Vader. There's something of that spirit of ridiculous dress-up at work here, as the villains hunch their shoulders and shout their lines, aiming to evoke menace and strength of purpose but conveying only some weird form of cosmic constipation. Where is the bathroom on this space station, anyway?

It should be fun, right?

There are always some gravel-voiced baddies (Necromongers, Sith Lords, etc.) wanting to rule the universe in this sort of film. This time it's a bunch of cranky a-holes called the Kree, who have issues with a peace accord signed by Nova Corps and the planet Xandar, or some such nonsense. The Kree want war; the nice clean people of Xandar want indoor plumbing and lighting. You can see the conflict, but let me see if I can sum it up in a few sentences and save you 122 minutes of wearying exposition.

In the midst of stealing the orb, Peter is interrupted by a posse of bad dudes intent on capturing it themselves to return to their master, one Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a religious fanatic from the Kree Nation. In order to retrieve the orb, Ronan requests the services of Gamora, a lithe green assassin played by Zoe Saldana, who sets off after Peter only to be thwarted in her efforts by two would-be bounty hunters, a foul-mouthed raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his walking tree companion Groot (Vin Diesel back in Iron Giant mode).

When this pack of reprobates tangle in the clean city streets of Xandar, they're picked up by the planet's military police (the Nova Corps) and packed off to prison. There they meet up with Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), an inmate whose entire family was murdered by Ronan. This unlikely group decide to join forces, stage a prison break, and head off to sell the orb to a creepy space Liberace named the Collector (Benicio del Toro). It is the Collector who reveals the true nature of the orb, setting off a chain of events that end with wholesale world-ending destruction that only a ragtag band of outlaws can forestall.

It should be fun, right? Not so much. Interminable is the word that comes immediately to mind. Nothing rings true. The fundamental conceit of the thing, a bunch of ne'er-do-wells out to save the universe with sass and banditry, has been done before and so much better. It makes you long for earlier, more genuine pleasures. (Oh Nathan Fillion, where are you when we need you?)

To be fair, there are one or two mildly amusing bits; a certain joke about Footloose brought a ghost of a smile, but that's about it. The rest of the running time trots you through its paces, shepherded along by director James Gunn (Slither) who never met a cliché he didn't like. Women, even green-skinned alien assassins, are women after all, and will eventually soften up and put on a miniskirt. Everyone has a secret emotional wound they're trying to hide, and friendship is magic. Blah, blah bleah.

Guardians is one of those films that made me think, "Am I here all alone?" But no, my sister had the same reaction. A veteran of innumerable science fiction atrocities I've dragged her to over the years (Aliens vs. Predator still ranks up there, as does The Chronicles of Riddick), she's game to see the occasional bad film. But this wasn't simply overblown, ambitious hooey liked Riddick or half-assed sequinitus like AVP. It was worse than that, dismal in a whole new way.

Just a pretender

Poor old Richard Brody shares some of my ennui. I found this out the other day after reading his article for the New Yorker about the fact that movies are not made for grown-ups anymore. The essay was a bit of a sweeping generalization, but I know what he meant. Studio films, with a rare exception or two, are made for the genuinely young and the grown-ups who cling to the belief they still have time to indulge themselves in young pleasures.

Other articles have tumbled forth this summer about the ennui of filmgoing at the moment. It's getting harder to even voice a critique, as Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice discovered when she wrote a pretty even-handed review of Guardians and was branded a harlot for her efforts. Aside from the review in the Voice, the film has been largely praised, but I think Zacharek got it right when she described the film's too-eager-to-please ethos thusly: "What really kills the fun -- as opposed to the Fun! -- of Guardians of the Galaxy, is its desperation to be casual and quirky and irreverent nearly every minute."

The soundtrack is where Guardians' ringing notes of falseness hammer home most clearly. The music, mostly 1970s R&B and soul, is taken, repurposed and stuck into a story where its "soul" purpose is to give depth that is neither earned nor real. I think Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir hits the nail on the head when he writes of the nostalgia: "We get to space out in a moonage daydream and pretend to like pina coladas, while Marvel Comics uproots all our own memories and our memories of our parents' memories -- all those summers at the lake house and kisses behind the gym and Christmas dinners with Grandpa before he had that heart attack -- and replaces them with a wiseass undead raccoon."

In this another film comes to mind, again explained by a recent New Yorker article that cited a real thing over its facsimile. The new James Brown biopic Get On Up is slated for release this weekend, and in advance of the film's entry into theatres, David Remnick wrote about the real performance that prompted one of the central chapters in the narrative. I urge you to watch the 18-minute YouTube clip and read the accompanying article.

The performance is staggering enough, but a certain sentence in Remnick's essay snagged my attention. Compared to Brown's show-stopping frenzy, Remnick wrote, a performer like the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger is "an anemic thing, a pretender." So it is with Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite all of the pyrotechnics on display -- the scale and sound and sheer deluge of stuff onscreen -- there's only emptiness where something real should be. What ought to be a hoot drags on, until all you want is sweet release from noise and wisecracks, only the silence and stillness of the summer night.