'Guardians of the Galaxy' is a human tale in deep space

Walt Disney Pictures

By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 6, 2014

In Bill Watterson’s classic cartoon strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” one of the most intriguing of Calvin’s many alter egos is Spaceman Spiff. He, like Calvin, is a young blonde-haired kid. He travels the universe in his UFO-like spaceship, fighting aliens, exploring abandoned civilizations on desolate planets and venturing into distant realms of obscure galaxies. Many things terrify him, and he often doubts his heroic ability. In this fantasy, Calvin isn’t a hero per se. He doesn’t have infallible bravery; instead, he’s just a human kid. He treks across the universe like any of us would.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Walt Disney Studios
Rave and Quality 16

One of the early scenes of James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” reveals Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, “Her”), an orphaned kid from Earth now wandering around the remote planet Morag. His ‘outlaw’ moniker, Star-Lord, poses the same cheesiness and faux-heroism as Calvin’s. Crafty tracking shots reveal a mask-clad Quill picking his way through ruin, presumably a long-abandoned civilization on some planet far, far away. The planet’s landscape resembles darker, more bizarrely colored Utah canyons – much like Watterson’s. It’s desolate. Quill’s tiny figure appears like a speck against such an enormous backdrop. Eventually, he enters a large structure draped in shadow. His gloved hand drifts down toward his belt, and when he pulls back his overcoat, we see a Sony Walkman attached to his hip. He presses play on “Awesome Mix No. 1.” As the music plays he starts to dance around the empty structure, sliding to and fro, kicking small alien life forms, singing along with the chorus. The scene is oddly convincing: if you found yourself alone in a strange building on an even stranger planet and you had your favorite music with you, wouldn’t you let it roll?

What makes this film so special is how so many scenes evoke this crazy yet very real sense of humanity. Quill, like Calvin, is so human in the way he reacts to aliens, statements and situations. Gunn’s fusing of ‘70s pop songs with a space-adventure film merely adds to its humanity. The alien characters are blue, green and red, they have bone-like objects protruding from their head, they wear human clothes, others wear no clothes, some speak English, some don’t, they inhabit the severed heads of ancient celestial beings and they suffer from poorly organized prison systems. But in spite of all the idiosyncrasy and inexplicable variation, the story remains believable. After all, it’s not set thousands of years into the future — it’s set in 2014. That little nugget of information is planted early on and stays with us throughout.

One superb aspect of the film is the cast of wonderfully developed characters, each with motives and histories of their own. Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”) is a genetically-modified raccoon bounty hunter whose vitriolic tongue and highly intelligent brain provide some interesting antics. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, “Riddick”) is a hulking warrior bent on avenging his slain wife and child. Quill dubs him a “walking Thesaurus” who is ironically incapable of understanding figurative language. Female warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana, “Avatar”) was orphaned as a child – something she and Quill subconsciously bond over – and was taken up by Thanos (Josh Brolin, “No Country for Old Men”), a selfish titan of the universe who reformed her into a weapon. Michael Rooker (“The Walking Dead”) delivers a volatile performance as Yondu, captain of the very same spaceship that abducted Quill as a boy.

The film’s appeal is perhaps most reflected by Groot (Vin Diesel, “The Fast and the Furious”), a humanoid tree whose origin goes unexplained. Yet, we feel as though we’ve known Groot from some other time. James Gunn described him as “one-hundred percent deadly, one-hundred percent sweet” and that’s as accurate as any description can be of him. Groot is, like the film itself, both extremely powerful and extremely nuanced. His character has but one line: “I am Groot.” Like every other risk in the film, Gunn and company completely pull it off.

That particular quality – stacking risk on top of risk, then fulfilling them all with cinematic grace and originality – defines “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Between the retro music, the maniacal characters, the genre satire, the anti-hero story, the visual effects, the humor and the subtle tragedy unique to each character, Gunn has created a film of tremendous spirit, at once wildly entertaining and refreshingly new. Though “Guardians of the Galaxy” takes us to new places in our universe, it remains quintessentially grounded in human nature. And that is its greatest triumph of all.