GUNN, James, Dir., Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios, 2014.
This film has been out for awhile and you’d think I’d have gotten around to it by now. In fact, it’s not really horror, so I feel absolved about taking my time overall; however, there are other issues which this movie raises and they’ve been niggling away in the background for so long that I feel I have to put them into words just so that I can get some rest.
(Another reason is that some friends of mine have decided that GotG is the best thing since sliced bread, and, in deference to them, I’ve tried many times to give it a break. Unfortunately, I just can’t get there.)
Admittedly, this film would have been a tough gig. All the other Marvel titles that have emerged over the last few years have a slick, updated feel to them, like they’ve at last been allowed to shed the ‘you know: for kids!’ label that’s been holding them back until now. Guardians of the Galaxy has always been a kids’ book, despite being infused with the sort of gravitas that Jack Kirby brought to the table in the form of such characters as Thanos and The Collector, and despite their being dragged into other bestselling titles such as the X-Men. The writers obviously decided therefore to ditch everything except the ‘70s start date - which informed the music and little else – and start again from the ground up. Each time I watch this film (and it’s been a few times now) there are a handful of jarring things that leap out at me and make me wince.
The first thing that sticks in my craw is the language. There are several word constructions in use at the moment which really gripe my cookies and this film hits all of them, with the result that I was grinding my teeth as the mayhem ensued. The first occurs in the character establishment phase on the “Abandoned Planet Morag” when our hero “Star Lord” (more mundanely known as Peter Quill) escapes after having secured the Orb (the McGuffin of the piece). Climbing out of the lower deck of his starcraft is Quill’s ‘companion’ Bereet, discombobulated by all the sudden fancy-flying. Quill forgets her name (sheesh!) and then says “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you: I forgot you’re here.” Grrr! Yes, ‘you’re’ is a valid contraction of ‘you were’ as much as it is the standard diminutive of ‘you are’. But, when you say one and mean the other, you have a problem with tense and this can confuse the audience. Am I alone in thinking that clarity should be the first order of business when making a special effects extravaganza?
And Star Lord’s verbal gaffs don’t stop there. He also starts sentences with the word ‘So’, which has become the latest in a range of verbal tics to replace ‘Um’. “So I was walking the dog the other day...’; “So I was saying to Larry this morning...”; “So I thought I’d start my sentence this way to appear as though we were already having a conversation...’ It’s annoying as all git out; there should be a law. And then there’s “...that good of a...” Boy, don’t get me started! Let’s take an example: “I’m not that good of a pilot”. See that ‘of’ in there? It’s unnecessary. Also, it sounds stupid. Just stop it.
Now, loaded down with all of this knuckle-dragger ‘English’, Peter Quill starts to talk in anachronisms. At one point, Gamora mentions that his spaceship, the Milano (where did that come from?), is “filthy”. Following this, Quill tells Rocket that with a black light, the inside of his spaceship looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. This is just gross, and Rocket reacts accordingly. I’ve discussed this gag with other viewers and most of them let this comment slide right by without getting it: I’m guessing it made it to the final cut of the film because most censors didn’t get it either (or were pretty sure that no-one else watching the film would get it and be offended by it). Now, it’s disgusting to realise that, with CSI lighting, the place you’re in is bedecked with 26 year’s worth of nocturnal emissions; it’s worse to realise that Quill is not embarrassed by the fact that Gamora can see this noxious coating; but it’s worse to have him crow about it by making a joke referencing a Twentieth Century artist, about whom as a child abducted from earth at the age of 9, he would know absolutely nothing. Ask any 9-year-old who Jackson Pollock is - see what happens. And to have Rocket – an alien – get the joke? That noise you hear is the overly-stretched credibility of this scene irrevocably snapping.
At another point, Quill questions Gamora about the orb and compares it to several other cinematic McGuffins, thus creating a moment of hilarious (!) self-reference. The “shiny blue suitcase” line he drops is a nod to Pulp Fiction: if he was abducted from Earth in 1988, I’m pretty sure he would have missed that movie, unless alien renegades are savvy about pirating intellectual property from Earth’s Internet. (Which they may be, but without stating this fact in the context of the film at some point, it just looks sloppy.)
“Why not take a chill pill?” you might say; “It’s just a fun film – why so serious?” Well, that’s true - for the most part this film is fun; but it’s also sloppily-written. Working out that Pulp Fiction post-dates the crucial 1988 date in the movie’s timeline by means of a simple check of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), takes less time to determine than it takes to type “Pulp Fiction post-dates the crucial 1988 date in the movie’s timeline by means of a simple check of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)”. It’s just not that hard. It is as easy in fact, as making sure that, in the opening sequence on “Abandoned Planet Morag” when you show Star Lord using a reptilian rat-thing as a microphone, you don’t intercut shots of him without the critter in his hand amongst those of him avec beastie. Oh, you stuffed that up too? So sad.
All I’m saying is, film-making should involve some level of concentration. Anachronistic references and anomalies stand out like a glitter-coated turd in a bunch of roses. And frankly, after three instalments of The Hobbit, I’m more than a little tired of slipshod, lacklustre, movie-making.
Let’s move on to characterisation. Within our group of heroes, only three of them are portrayed by actual real people. The two that aren’t – Rocket and Groot – are the best performers. Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista (Gamora and Drax the Destroyer, respectively) are weighed down with latex and body-paint and so start off on the back foot – pushing a characterisation through kilos of plastic is always a courageous process and not always successful (we can’t all be Hellboy). They do a heroic job though and, for the most part, it works. I say “for the most part” because here too, sloppy writing defines them and saddles them with some crappy penalties. At one point Drax calls Gamora a “green whore”, and I’m completely confused as to why he should choose this term. We’ve been set up to believe that Drax’s people are utterly literal, but up until this point in the action (and I’ve checked), Gamora has given Drax no reason to think that she’s a sex-worker, so why this pejorative term? I haven’t had my ‘objectification of women’ bell rung for awhile now and it was frankly disconcerting to find this film doing it. There's another Drax inconsistency at the end when Quill asks him to give a crap...but possibly other reasons stopped the director from following through with this.
I was also kind of wondering when these two would start living up to the hype. According to the exposition, they are supposed to be bad-ass fighters of wide repute: Gamora is a “living weapon”; Drax is “the Destroyer”. Their on-screen efforts were altogether ho-hum. Not bad, per se; just not very special. When you get right down to it, the Guardians are a pretty bog-standard superhero team: a leader, a technician, a healer, a sneaky fighter and a brick. They all have a speciality so it’s easy, as a scriptwriter, to play to their strengths for some hero moments, and then to play to their weaknesses, thus revealing their human sides. In this film, Peter Quill (is he Errol Flynn? Or Mike Myers from Wayne’s World? Just pick one, people!) is a poor leader, Gamora is not as good an assassin as her sister Nebula, and Drax gets beaten up. A lot. I kept wondering what Jim Lee of W.I.L.D.C.A.T.S. fame would have done with this crew...
The patchiness and lack of focus runs right the way through the whole film which, on the face of it, is spectacular to look at. Frankly, if I had spent so much time building these special effects, I would have demanded a better script to underpin them. There were some nice touches – the Xandarian star motif which shows up throughout the film; John C. Reilly’s character (“it’s okay to have a code name; it’s not that weird”); the soundtrack – but the rest was just fuzzy. Who exactly can pick up an Infinity Stone? Why weren’t the Guardians all just vapourised by it at the end? The answer is in there, but it’s buried; discussed in passing; blink and you’ll miss it. Like I said above, surely in a film like this, clarity is your first piece of business.
In the final analysis, watch this movie for the Laurel and Hardy comedic stylings of Rocket and Groot; boogie along in your seat to the funky soundtrack; but turn your brain off otherwise. Given that this comics title was pitched at kids back in the ‘70s, they’ve done a tremendous amount of work to make it appeal to adults in the 21st Century. Just not particularly grown-up adults.
And, to add insult to injury, after the credits they threaten us with Howard the Duck! Santayana said, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. Marvel! Have you learned nothing?!
Two-and-half tentacled horrors.