Walt Disney Studios

Walt Disney Studios

Earth, 1988, and a young boy named Peter is watching his mother die. As her final breath passes her lips he runs out of the hospital and collapses on the fog-shrouded lawn… at which point a spaceship appears, sucks him in and streaks off to who knows where. 26 years later we’re introduced to the now adult Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who prefers people call him by his much cooler moniker — Star Lord.

Quill is a roguish adventurer — think a half-assed Indiana Jones or an insecure Han Solo — who makes a living acquiring things for people willing to pay for said things, but his latest attempted theft lands him in prison alongside a quartet of equally morally-suspect individuals including a fierce female warrior, an even fiercer male warrior, a verbally-challenged tree and a genetically-modified raccoon. The group soon realizes that the item holds a highly destructive power and that they may be the only ones capable of stopping it from falling into the hands of an intergalactic madman bent on doing the kinds of crazy shit madmen typically do.

If Serenity and Ice Pirates spent a drunken night of debauchery together without using protection, the result would be something like Marvel’s latest (and least Marvel-like) feature, Guardians of the Galaxy. To be clear, that’s a good thing. Hell, that’s a great thing as the resulting film is a vibrantly exciting, immensely entertaining and frequently hilarious sci-fi adventure.

Quill’s theft of the super special orb puts him in the crosshairs of Ronan (Lee Pace), a disgruntled radical with plans on disrupting a recent interspecies peace treaty by way of mass murder, but the maniacal, wannabe terrorist isn’t the only one on Quill’s tail. The orb makes him a target for others as well, and it’s during a two-sided attack that he first meets three of his future buds. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by Ronan but has plans of her own for the orb, while Rocket and Groot (a raccoon and a walking tree voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) are after him for the bounty on his head. One very public scuffle later, the gang becomes five with the addition of Drax (Dave Bautista), a hulking man on a personal mission of revenge.

They’re neither the heroes the galaxy needs nor deserves, but they’re the only ones available on short notice, so they’ll have to do.

There are signs that director James Gunn‘s film is part of the Marvel Universe — the return of two characters we’ve previously only seen in end credits scenes, a Stan Lee cameo — but these elements aside, it’s easy enough to view the film entirely as its own thing. Everything from the highly comedic tone to the visual palette to the intergalactic setting to the numerous aliens on display mark it as distinct from the rest of the MCU, but for as different as it is, Guardians of the Galaxy is in many ways also the most relatable.

The near constant humor is a big part of that, but so is the script’s inclusion of decades worth of pop culture references both visual and aural. ALF, Troll dolls, Ranger Rick and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are just the tip of the ’80s-tinged iceberg, and they’re joined by ’70s music cues as diverse as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Joan Jett’s “Cherry Bomb.” Spaceships, aliens and CGI creations lovingly assault our eyes and details like character and place names are tossed about with abandon, but while this is all new to us it still feels just familiar enough.

As wholly entertaining as the movie is — seriously, it’s almost cruelly unrelenting in its unwavering effort to make viewers smile and laugh — it’s not quite as successful when it comes to the usual mainstay of comic-book films: the action. Aerial battles and other large-scale assaults are lively and properly captured onscreen, but the numerous bouts of flesh slapping — as in fist fights, not “pelvic sorcery” — is continuously shot and/or edited with extreme close-ups and rapid-fire cuts. It’s not difficult necessarily to figure out what’s happening and to whom, but it leaves the scenes with no real visual appeal. The most egregious example sees an early foot chase punctuated with mini brawls make a daytime, urban exterior feel small and claustrophobic.

There are other, smaller issues throughout — an out of character act of sacrifice, the harsh effects (or non-effects) of space on living flesh — but all are made forgivable by everything else the film gets so incredibly right. The constantly moving and firing script (by Nicole Perlman and Gunn) lands occasionally on serious exchanges, but they’re rarely allowed to go on longer than necessary. Only the villains (Pace and a coldly thrilling Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister, Nebula) are kept in an almost universally dark place, which is fitting for villains intent on mass murder, leaving a strong balance between comedic beats and dramatic threats.

The production designers also deserve multiple nods for their work in creating the varied locales and environments, each unique and frequently colorful, and the same goes for the makeup/effects teams who crafted the galaxy’s numerous citizens (granted several of them feel like homages to the original Star Trek and its habit of simply painting someone a primary color and calling them an alien), including the entirely CGI Groot and Rocket.

Marvel’s previous 2014 feature, Captain America : The Winter Soldier, proved they could successfully shift the formulaic superhero film towards other genres — in that case a darker, politically-minded and paranoia-fueled direction — and Guardians of the Galaxy shows that was no fluke. This is an incredibly funny film on par with any of the year’s best comedies, and while I’m no fan of the kind of arrogance needed to announce a release date for a sequel to a film that hasn’t opened yet, I exited this one already excited to see the gang’s next adventure… which has already been announced to hit theaters on July 28th, 2017.

The Upside: Immensely and consistently entertaining; very funny; exciting range of characters; Chris Pratt turns his charm to 11; Lee Pace and Karen Gillan bring real weight to villains; Dave Bautista and Bradley Cooper surprise; great soundtrack

The Downside: Fight scenes are claustrophobic; a couple seemingly out of character actions; space not acting like space; Benicio Del Toro what?

On the Side: The list of actors who reportedly auditioned and screen-tested for the role of Peter Quill aka Star Lord includes Wes Bentley, Joel Edgerton, Cam Gigandet, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Garrett Hedlund, John Krasinski, James Marsden, Aaron Paul and Lee Pace. Collectively they’re known as “several bullets dodged.”

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