Sunday, August 10, 2014

Caught Off Guardian

Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel's latest box office triumph, and most critics have responded extremely favourably to James Gunn's fast-paced tale of swashbuckling adventure across the stars. I went to the theatre today with high expectations, expecting to love yet another film in Marvel's unbroken string of fun, well-crafted action movies.

To my extreme surprise, I found myself both bored and annoyed by the film. It's loud, predictable and takes absolutely no risks, common wisdom to the contrary. And unless you're already familiar with the back story of the film's cast of characters, you won't care one whit what happens to them.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The film opens in a hospital on Earth in the late 1980s. Young Peter Quill sits in a hallway, listening to "Awesome Mix Vol. 1" on his Walkman until his grandfather urgently ushers him into the room where his mother lay dying. Tears are shed, and Peter can't bring himself to take his mother's hand - he's too scared. She dies without feeling her son's touch one last time, but not before handing him a present.

(You get zero points for guessing that the present will be revealed as "Awesome Mix Vol. 2" sometime during the last ten minutes of the film. It couldn't be telegraphed more clearly even if the box had "EMOTIONAL CLOSURE" written all over it.)

You would think that any scene involving a child facing his mother's death would be inherently poignant, but I found myself completely unmoved. The first time we see Ms. Quill, she's bedridden, emaciated and she's lost all of her hair. She says motherly things to Peter, and he's naturally upset. But we don't know anything about this woman. She may have been a saint; she may have been a monster. She may have been the best mother in the world or just someone trying to do her best. The audience isn't given a single character beat to cling to. We're expected to care about this moment because hey, a mom is dying. In the real world of course we'd care, but in a story the creator must create reasons for us to get involved in the story. The film's writers and director fail the most basic storytelling rule: show, don't tell. They're telling us we should care without showing us.

Seconds after Ms. Quill dies, Peter runs into the darkness outside the hospital and is promptly abducted by aliens. A couple of decades later, grown-up Peter has become an intergalactic Indiana Jones, scrounging up artifacts and selling them for cash (or "units"). Of course he winds up with the movie's MacGuffin, one of the Infinity Stones, a gem of tremendous power capable of snuffing out worlds. Peter meets cute with the rest of the cast - a green-skinned assassin, a strongman, a talking raccoon and a walking tree. On paper this should be awesome, and to be fair Rocket Raccoon and Drax (the strongman) have some funny moments, but the characters spend most of the time shouting at each other and at the villains, who naturally shout back. They get thrown into prison, where they become reluctant allies; the escape is one of the film's many action setpieces, all of which are laden with so many explosions, fistfights, knife fights and karate that it becomes impossible to care about the consequences. You just accept that the characters live in an incredibly violent universe where this is normal.

Just as in The Avengers, a planet is invaded by aliens and starships crash into cities, killing untold numbers of mostly faceless innocents - although at least in this film there are two, perhaps three token shots of said innocents reacting to the chaos around them, which is more than we got in Man of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness. If I could put an end to one Hollywood trend today, this is the one I'd pick; I don't need to see cities destroyed in every action film I see. The casualties become meaningless.

After first being defeated by the film's primary villain, Ronan the Accuser (a genocidal maniac who for reasons barely touched upon wants to kill an entire civilization his people were once at war with), the Guardians come together to seize the Infinity Stone from Ronan's grasp and overcome him with the literal and metaphorical power of friendship.

I was stunned when the climax involved Peter finding enough courage to reach out and take a woman's hand, neatly dovetailing the film's opening. Not stunned because I was moved, but stunned that the film's creators believe audiences need their hands held in such a patronizing manner.

It's not all bad. The actors do their best with the material they're given, although I wish they'd shouted less, and Benecio del Toro and Glenn Close are completely wasted. I admire the production design, particularly the star-shaped fighters of the Nova Corps and the main battleship of the antagonists.

My opinion is way out of step with those of not only professional critics, but friends whose tastes I respect. So I'm very surprised that I left the theatre this afternoon feeling if not insulted than at least profoundly underwhelmed. I feel this is easily the worst of Disney's Marvel movies, a misstep I hope is just a one-time anomaly. 

4 comments:

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Well, I can't dispute a single one of your assertions, and they are refreshing proof that you can't please every one. Despite the predictability, I maintain that Guardians remains a tremendously fun summer experience, albeit a shallow one.

Tara said...

I too can only agree with your statements, Earl, and yet, like Steve, I enjoyed the admittedly somewhat cheesy ride! My first clue as to how cheesy it might become was Peter's initial dance sequence. It set the tone for me, and perhaps changed my initial expectations of the film, from an Avengers type of adventure to a Big Trouble in Little China adventure! Once I did that, I found it to be a lot of fun :)

Totty said...

Half in the Bag liked it so obviously Earl is objectively wrong.

Much like Steve, I agree that you're criticisms aren't completely off base and I too enjoyed the movie.

Jeff Shyluk said...

Late to the party.

Earl is 110% correct. A lazily constructed movie with a massive budget. Powerfully dull edits and staging. Without knowing anything about the comic book, it's nearly impossible to care for any of the characters. It's just checkboxes in the typical Joseph Campbell list of hero tropes. I double dog dare anyone who thinks this movie is fun to watch it again and be mindful of the things that are done to manipulate the audience. Are any of those antics even remotely clever? Original? Heartfelt?

Unfortunately, there will be a Guardians sequel.

Fortunately, there will be a Fury Road sequel.