The Empty Balcony: Guardians of the Galaxy

I think I may have seen too many movies. That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why I did not like Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios’ 2014 money machine. It hit all the right notes when it comes to action, pacing, and story. It kept things simple, avoiding all pretension, and at no point did it strive to be something greater than it was. But...

I think the movie showed a profound disrespect for its audience. Big action movies aren’t just simple anymore. Rather, they have been simplified, stripped of any sort of nuance or individuality in the pursuit of massive box office receipts. There is nothing inherently wrong in trying to maximize profit. But what it does mean is that, in seeing a movie like this, no viewer can expect anything beyond superficial uniqueness. There are new stories out there. But new stories require an entrepreneurial spirit that Hollywood is currently anathema to. It’s hard to explain how much the studio system has changed in a generation, so I’ll just give this example: Taxi Driver was a Hollywood studio film. That’s right. Taxi Driver. A film featuring a violent psychopath, who develops a crush on an underage hooker, as a protagonist. These days, the talents of that film’s young director, Martin Scorcese, would be steered into projects that are designed from the very beginning to be sanitized versions of past successes.

Directed by James Gunn, Guardians is a movie that is more constructed than it was filmed. Like just about every other Marvel film since Iron Man, the plot follows the film’s heroes as they chase after a MacGuffin. In this case, the mystical object is a sphere. No one knows what the sphere does, yet everyone really, really, REALLY, wants to get ahold of it. So what is the sphere? In a plot twist that could only have been birthed by a truly sick and sublime sense of humor, the sphere is merely a vessel that holds another MacGuffin, something called an Infinity Stone (I cannot believe I capitalized that).

MacGuffins are fantastic. They are the go-to device that blockbuster films use in place of real plot. It doesn’t matter what that MacGuffin does, just as long as good guys and bad guys chase after it. The point of a movie like Guardians is action, after all. Not plot. If plot is the filler for a movie, then no movie can go wrong with a MacGuffin. And, considering how much money Marvel has raked in with its films, audiences don’t seem to care that story is an afterthought, either.

There are characters in this movie, but they matter about as much as the plot. There’s Peter Quill, otherwise known as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt); Gamora, a green alien with some forehead doodads, a la Star Trek (Zoe Saldana); Drax, an alien allergic to shirts (played by Dave Bautista, who is perhaps the most physically intimidating person employed by the WWE this century); Rocket, a CGI raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a CGI talking tree with a limited vocabulary (voiced by Vin Diesel). Of course, these characters could be thought of a little differently. It only takes a few minutes of watching for a viewer to realize this cast could be swapped almost seamlessly with that of Star Wars. Really the only hiccup is deciding which character is Han Solo: Quill or Rocket.

I’m sure that each member of the cast was a professional during production, but there’s only so much anyone can do with a vapid script and a green screen. Remember, Cooper has been nominated for acting Oscars three times.

Perhaps the most glaring problem with this movie is that it fails the immersion test. That is, everything about it looked like it was birthed inside of a computer. I found suspension of disbelief almost impossible. There were countless shots where one or two of the performers were on screen and it was obvious that nothing else around them was real. An astute viewer could easily pick out how these shots were constructed and thus they lose all believability.

Of course, it’s not like this movie takes place on earth. With the exception of the opening prologue, the entire movie is set either in space or on alien worlds. Such a story is only limited by a filmmaker’s imagination. Strike that. This story is limited by the studio’s sense of its audience. Marvel did not want to leave anything to chance. They wanted our money, and they got it. In the process, they produced a film that even lobotomy patients could love.