I once took—and dropped out of—a screenwriting course offered by my alma mater's Continuing Education department. The teacher sucked, and unfortunately, his name was Kevin, too. The man was a doofus, making us buy a textbook that we then proceeded to ignore. His analysis of movie plots often didn't make sense. But I'll grant him two things: first, the man was a fantastic script editor. He flayed my draft script to bloody ribbons, and while I hated him for it at the time, I ended up thinking that all of his edits were legitimate. Second, he said one thing about movies that has stuck with me because it makes intuitive sense: movies are fundamentally an emotional experience. Sure, sure: there are films that make you think, but even those films, when they make you think, are doing so to make you feel something—an Aha! of enlightenment, perhaps.
This occurred to me while I was barely a few minutes into "Guardians of the Galaxy," a Marvel-universe action-comedy-adventure film directed by the aptly named James Gunn and starring Chris Pratt (the voice of Emmett from "The Lego Movie") as lovable rogue Peter Quill, a.k.a. the self-styled "Star Lord." "Galaxy" begins on Earth in 1988, and that first scene was hard to watch: a preteen Peter Quill is in the hospital with his dying mother. So I was sucker-punched at the outset by a scene that took me back to early 2010, to my own dying mother, surrounded by loved ones as she expired. I doubt the filmmakers were aiming for major pathos in that scene, but that's how it affected me—and that, folks, is what emotional experiences are all about. So right away, I felt a certain kinship with Peter Quill, who lost his mother, and who childishly refused to take her trembling hand when she asked him to. (This has repercussions later on.)
Flash-forward to twenty years later, and a thirty-something Peter Quill, abducted by a spacecraft right after his mother's death, is now an interstellar adventurer, a mercenary recoverer of artifacts in the tradition of Indiana Jones (implicit Harrison Ford references abound in this film, as do explicit references to Kevin Bacon—yet another Kevin). He's after something known simply as "the orb," and he finds it early on. It's not until much later that we discover the orb's significance. For the moment, though, it's enough to know that the orb is wanted by many people, including one powerfully evil individual with world-destroying intentions: Ronan (Lee Pace, who played the Elven King Thranduil in the most recent "Hobbit" movie), a Kree with genocidal intentions against the planet Xandar. Quill falls in with a few other rogues: angry mutant raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his tree-pal Groot (voice and mo-cap action by Vin Diesel), the beautiful and green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Every member of this motley crew wants to capture or kill the other members at first, but as the movie progresses and one of its major themes emerges, rivals and enemies eventually become friends—even family. The object of the game then becomes to play keep-away with the orb, wresting it from the clutches of Ronan.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" is perhaps a little overstuffed with action—some of it balletically "Matrix"-style, some of it chaotically "Star Wars"-style—but it carries its dramatic load lightly, buoyed by an impish, and occasionally vulgar, sense of humor that keeps the ambiance from becoming too grave. Like the aforementioned "Matrix" and "Star Wars," "Guardians of the Galaxy" provides rollicking adventure without all the pretentiousness: in no way does the story take itself seriously. Alien races in this movie are little different from the types encountered in a typical episode of "Star Trek": just imagine a huge cosplay convention. The movie also features a gorgeous palette in terms of scenery: there's a prison reminiscent of Erewhon from "Face/Off," a city-sized mining colony established inside the long-dead cranium of a gigantic alien being, and battle scenes that take place everywhere from flak-filled skies to gloomy corridors. Through it all, tying the whole thing together, is the rock music of the 1970s, Peter Quill's one fetish. (He keeps a cassette player with him at all times. It's his version of Indiana Jones's hat.)
If "Galaxy" lacks anything from the "Star Wars" template, it's the sense of mysticism that comes from a concept like the Force. Still, the orb turns out to be a primordial source of cosmic energy (I'll let you discover the particulars for yourself) that can be wielded only by the truly powerful; it's not the Force, but it acts a bit like The Force Unleashed. There are also no benevolent wisdom figures, no Ben Kenobis or Yodas, to serve as mentors for Peter Quill. And that's actually refreshing: in both "Star Wars" and "The Matrix," we see the story unfolding from the point of view of innocence: Luke Skywalker doesn't know who he is, and Neo (as his name implies) is just a newbie, yet to discover his heroic potential. "Galaxy," by contrast, features nothing but the jaded, the worldly, and the cynical: to some degree or other, everyone is Han Solo. And that works out just fine.
"Galaxy" does cleave to the "Star Wars" pattern in other ways, though: Rocket and Groot are more violent versions of Artoo and Threepio, with the stoic-yet-surprising Groot in the Artoo role, displaying some new function or ability as the need arises. Other parallels with "Star Wars" include the titanic space and high-atmosphere battles, the existence of a planet-destroying weapon, and Peter Quill's John Masefield-scale love affair with his precious starship (this film's answer to the Millennium Falcon).
The script is smart enough to let the characters play off each other. Half the fun of the movie is the adventure the characters are on, but the other half is the arc of the interaction among the characters themselves. Watching them go from enemies to friends to something like a family is delightful, and perhaps even a little touching. The actors themselves all seem to be having fun in their roles. Chris Pratt plays Star Lord with such a balance of faux-innocence, virile charm, and hidden nobility that you might just believe he's the lord of something or other. Bradley Cooper does yeoman's work voicing the universe's angriest raccoon. Vin Diesel essentially pulls an Andy Serkis, mo-capping and voicing Groot in a convincingly bulky, arboreal way. Zoe Saldana sparkles as a deadly assassin whose heart of ice proves capable of melting. Dave Bautista, as the hulking Drax, is a revelation for his deadpan comedic delivery. Bautista was apparently best known as an MMA combatant, but after watching him utter some truly over-the-top lines in hilariously stilted English, I'm convinced the man should try his hand at Shakespeare. Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro have interesting cameos—and before I forget, hats off to Michael Rooker for his uncharacteristically hilarious work as Yondu, the alien bandit who originally snatched Peter Quill from off Terra.
Ultimately, I thought "Guardians of the Galaxy" was just good fun. It delivered in about the manner that I had thought it would. There's action, there's a dash of romance, there's a truckload of adventure, and plenty of comedy, too. It's also got a message, I think—something about the power of friendship and love, emanating from as simple a gesture as holding someone's hand, or just being there for someone. Like its artistic forebears, "Star Wars" and "The Matrix," "Guardians" doesn't take itself seriously. What it does do is take you for an emotional roller-coaster ride. It's not anyone's idea of a particularly deep movie, but it'll make you feel. And you might just end up hooked on that feeling.