Marvel’s latest box-office draw GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, has attracted quite the fanboy following, with some reviewers even comparing the rocket-fueled joyride to STAR WARS or FIREFLY. The space opera adventures of a mismatched band of reluctant heroes may remind us of Serenity, but “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) is no Captain Mal. At its heart, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is just another afternoon’s entertainment, fun, but little more substantial than the accompanying popcorn.
The movie starts out with a very emotionally affecting scene here on Earth, where seven-year-old Quill is asked to say goodbye to his mother, who is dying of cancer in a hospital. In a fit of grief-driven anger, he refuses to take her hand and runs out of the hospital. Alone and crying, he is . . . abducted by aliens. The next time we see him is as an adult on an “abandoned planet” where he is scavenging for a living, dancing to the beat of an old ‘70’s mix tape on a Walkman that was beamed up with him when he was taken. The tape is all that he has left of his mom.
There is really no describing the emotional whiplash of the first few minutes of the film. I’m not sure I ever got over it, especially since the director (James Gunn, SCOOBY DOO, MOVIE 43, SLITHER) keeps returning to the mix tape and Mom as essential to Quill’s character. What tone are we trying to hit here exactly?
Anyway, to make a long story short, Quill finds something BIG on that planet, something it appears everyone in the galaxy wants. It takes a while to sort out who’s who, as everyone and his alien brother begins to try and kidnap/kill/maim Quill to get the thing. Along the way, he acquires his quirky allies: a bioengineered raccoon; a sentient, mobile tree; a green-skinned, kickass female assassin out to betray her bad-guy boss; a hulk with tattoos determined to kill the bad guy in revenge for the murder of his family. When they figure out that the thing everyone wants can destroy worlds, they set out to Do The Right Thing, even if it hurts. All to the tune of “Hooked on a Feeling” (the weird one by Blue Swede, not the superior original by B.J. Thomas). Oogachaka, anyone?
Okay, so it’s a fun ride, with plenty of action and wisecracks. And Marvel has already said they are determined to build this into a new franchise. But the Guardians have a long, long way to go before they reach icon status a la Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew, Captain Mal and his crew of desperate misfits or even Captain Adama, President Roslin and the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. Because, try as they might, the Guardians lack epic scope.
By epic scope I don’t mean just big battles or destruction on a grand scale. I don’t even mean that the stakes are major, though that is certainly part of it. (If the size of the stakes defined “epic”, then every blockbuster at the Cineplex would qualify, since our entire universe is at risk in each and every one of them.) For a film or a television series or a book, for that matter, to have that sense of the truly epic, it must deal with the big questions, with fundamental issues humans struggle with over and over. The best ones deal with those questions not simply within the context of plot, but in their premises and underlying themes.
So STAR TREK has epic scope because it deals with the questions of the hero’s quest and what it means to be human (or even more often, what it means to be free). STAR WARS is a coming-of-age story set in space, but it also deals with the question of responsibility to self vs. responsibility to a higher ideal (Han Solo’s problem). BATTLESTAR GALLATICA asks viewers to define what is home, what is God AND what does it mean to be human, and gives no easy answers. FIREFLY is a quest for hope in the midst of despair, and the struggle that goes on in every individual between selfish and higher impulses. Want good vs. evil on a grander level? LORD OF THE RINGS takes you there, with the hero’s quest serving as the structure against which that struggle is played out.
Some of these themes could be teased out of GUARDIANS (that war between selfish and higher impulses, for example), but nothing is treated with any seriousness. Everything is done tongue-in-cheek. I have absolutely no objection to that. Play the whole “save the galaxy” thing for laughs and I’m in all the way. What I find puzzling is the reaction by some geekier reviewers who say things like, “this is my STAR WARS!” Um, no. Look up the definition of parody.
In fact, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a pretty good parody of our favorite save-the-galaxy tropes, and a lot of fun on that level. Just don’t go to the theater expecting the next space epic.
SIDE NOTE: Luc Besson’s LUCY did try to deal with some of those larger questions, at least in the traditional SF framework of “what if”. What if we humans suddenly had the capacity to use 100 per cent of our brains? According to Besson (the TRANSPORTER films, but also THE FIFTH ELEMENT), the answer is mostly ugly and violent, but it was interesting to watch the plot play out anyway. Scarlett Johannsson as Lucy and Morgan Freeman as the “learned professor” did what they could to salvage the film. Worthy of a late-night watch at home.