Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Guardians of the Galaxy"

 3 / 5 

There's a reason you don't hear people walking out of McDonald's asking, "How was your food?"  You don't go to McDonald's expecting a memorable meal infused with the passion and personality of the chef.  You go because you want to eat at McDonald's, and the food will always be no better or worse than it needs to be.

What McDonald's is to food, Marvel has become to film: Both have perfected the mass-production of standardized ingredients that are neither particularly appetizing nor objectionably bland.  You do not go to a Marvel film expecting a movie infused with the passion and personality of its director.  You go because you want to see a Marvel movie, and as Guardians of the Galaxy proves, the experience will be no better or worse than it needs to be.  I didn't hear anyone walking out of Guardians of the Galaxy asking, "What did you think?"  It was exactly the film the audience expected they would get.

Guardians of the Galaxy is ostensibly directed by James Gunn, but if you took a sequence from this movie and inserted it in, say, The Avengers 4 or Iron Man 6, it would be impossible to know the difference.  That is not necessarily a criticism.

No series of films has ever perfected a uniform studio vision quite as effectively as the Marvel movies have, at least since 1930s, when Warner Bros. made gangster movies and women's melodramas that achieved a consistent visual look and MGM was a factory that churned out musical after musical.

It's impressive, really, what Marvel has done, and even the marketing and publicity machines behind Marvel movies feel exactly alike.  Marvel is as close to the old studio system of moviemaking as anyone's come in the past seventy years.  Marvel has a "house style" that sets its films apart from anything else in the market.

The result is such an astounding consistency that it seems virtually irrelevant that there are specific directors or writers behind these films; they represent the common vision of Marvel Studios, not a filmmaker.  That's enormously evident in Guardians of the Galaxy, which seems like it is the umpteenth Marvel movie in the past year.

True, this one features a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree at its core, but are these computer-generated characters all that different than the mostly animated Iron Man, the computer-altered Steve Rogers in Captain America, or the CG Hulk?  Not really, and for that matter the basic concept of animated leading characters is the same as it was when Eddie Valiant teamed with Roger Rabbit or Pete's Dragon romped on screen.

The plot involves a boy from Earth who's kidnaped by an alien spaceship and becomes an Indiana Jones-type pillager of precious objects.  His memories of his life on Earth seem relatively unimportant except for a Walkman that he values more than anything else, particularly for the single cassette it plays over and over without breaking, a mix of 1970s songs given to him by his mother.

As the movie starts, the good-natured rogue, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is searching for a sphere that, it turns out, houses an "Infinity Stone," which is an important part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- the movie equivalent of McDonald's recipe for secret sauce.  It's what distinguishes the Marvel movies from any other, in the same way that secret sauce makes McDonald's different than Burger King.

Quill has a bounty on his head, and the talking raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and the big tree (Vin Diesel, who must have had the shortest voice-over recording sessions in history) are just about to collect on the money when they, along with the green-hued daughter of a very bad guy (kind of like the Emperor from the Star Wars movies), are all caught and sent to prison, where they meet up with a big hulking tattooed guy (Dave Bautista) and try to keep the sphere out of the wrong hands.

Those hands want the Infinity Stone in order to destroy the universe.  In essence, the stone serves the same purpose as the secret plans in the Star Wars movies -- everyone wants them, and the movie is all about trying to find them and make sure the bad guys don't get them first.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy owes a lot to Star Wars.  It even has a final battle that is like a hyperactively edited version of the Death Star trench battle in the first Star Wars movie.  Will the good guys win?  Spoiler alert: Yup.

Guardians of the Galaxy holds few surprises (though its animated characters, particularly Groot, are unusually endearing).  It is exactly what it claims to be.  It has more humor than other Marvel movies, perhaps, and has the same visual problems as the other films -- sometimes, it's impossible to follow what's happening on screen.  The story meshes with the other Marvel movies in ways that are sometimes quite remarkable, as if every MGM musical made after 1939 contained a direct plot reference to The Wizard of Oz.

Guardians of the Galaxy is, like a McDonald's meal, neither good nor bad.  It is not a film for those who prefer movies that take risks and strive for cinematic ambition.  That does not mean it is not enjoyable; in fact, it is, quite.  Then again, when you're hungry and don't have a lot of time, a Big Mac can be entirely satisfying.  It will also be like every Big Mac you've ever had, and you'd be a bit of a fool to complain about that.

Viewed August 9, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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