Guardians of the Galaxy 3D Review
Marvel Studios initiated Phase 2 of their so-called 'Cinematic Universe' (MCU) with the relative downer of Tony Stark struggling with PTSD in Iron Man 3 after the devastating alien invasion of New York in The Avengers. The rather dull Thor: The Dark World followed, as the brooding Asgardian moped around the Nine Realms, and the seismic events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed on Blu-ray here) basically tore the MCU a new one as SHIELD got destroyed from the inside out, leaving Earth vulnerable to attack from all quarters.
We could be forgiven, then, for assuming that this latest piece of the Phase 2 puzzle would continue in the same gloomy vein after watching its touching opening scene, where a young boy watches his ailing mother die from cancer and then gets scooped up by a spaceship. But as soon as we set eyes on the now grown-up man dancing his way through the opening credits and stealing an ancient alien artefact to the tune of Come And Get Your Love by Redbone, it's clear that this movie will turn those Phase 2 frowns upside down. This is our introduction to the:
Based on one of the lesser known Marvel comic lines, Guardians has come from nowhere (in movie terms) to do what Iron Man did in 2008: catapult a smaller property into the big leagues thanks to a charming, funny and action-packed movie adaptation. The story revolves around the aforementioned young man, Peter Quill, abducted from Earth by intergalactic bounty hunters known as Ravengers and raised by their leader Yondu. The Ravengers' latest big score hinges on stealing a mysterious Orb for a tidy sum, only Quill - or Star-Lord as he likes to call himself - decides to swipe the Orb for himself and blunders into a far bigger situation than he realised, as a multitude of factions crave the Orb and will stop at nothing to get it. Chief among them is Thanos, a God-like being glimpsed at the end of The Avengers who desires the Infinity Stones, precious gems formed at the birth of the universe which bestow great powers upon their holder.
As Quill ferries the Orb across the galaxy it becomes obvious that it is no mere trinket, and along the way he collects a rag-tag band of outlaws on the promise of a stellar payday, including Rocket, a cybernetically-enhanced raccoon and his giant tree bodyguard Groot; Gamora, a green-skinned female assassin; and Drax The Destroyer, a hulking brute of a man out to avenge his family's death at the hands of the Kree. The uneasy alliance of this dysfunctional group is put to the test when the despotic Kree military governer Ronan The Accuser (one of Thanos' minions) discovers the true power of the Orb, and takes it upon himself to first destroy the people of Xandar (old enemies of the Kree) and then to take over the entire quadrant. Quill and his new associates realise that there's more at stake than a sizeable bounty or simple revenge, and the five of them assume the mantle of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Director/writer James Gunn (Slither, Super) has crafted a wonderfully assured film that finally allows the MCU to slip its Earthly bonds into the realms of space fantasy. The quasi-mythical nature of the Thor movies laid the groundwork but they're still fairly Earth-centric so it's Guardians which has the responsibility of taking the audience on a (almost) completely alien adventure, encountering a way station called Knowhere built into the head of a giant celestial being, a max-security prison filled with all sorts of alien scum and the gleaming planet of Xandar that seems to have been designed by Santiago Calatrava from top to bottom. And then there's the assortment of oddball characters, like the talking raccoon and his overgrown houseplant of a sidekick. Mix in a typically convoluted plot where EVERYONE wants to get their hands on the MacGuffin and this movie really shouldn't work. But it does, and it does it with style.
Gunn's first stroke of genius was to take the 'world building' aspect seriously, creating entire backstories for most of the alien races seen in the movie and providing a swathe of designs for the vivid makeup, the planets and so on. This helps to ground everything (if you'll pardon the expression when talking about a space movie) in some sort of tangible reality, even if it's not directly referenced on-screen, and the practical sets and locations make a huge difference also, like the immense three-story prison. The real sets are bolstered by some excellent CG, not only for the set extensions and expansive action scenes but also for Rocket & Groot, who are brought to life through detailed and expressive animation. Gunn's second moment of inspiration comes via a jukebox soundtrack of '70s/'80s pop songs played by Quill on his Walkman, which gives us another touchstone to allow us to connect it back to our own world in some way.
Another winning aspect is the superb ensemble cast. Chris Pratt has morphed from a loveable schlub into a hunky leading man but he hasn't lost his comedy chops along with the flab. As Quill he's an aloof, insolent womaniser who garners a lot of laughs and yet he's also able to imbue the more serious moments with genuine emotion too. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the hit-girl who grows a conscience, and while the character is somewhat half-baked Saldana does the best she can with it. Pro wrestler Dave Bautista was a surprise choice for Drax The Destroyer but he absolutely nails it, his limited acting skills being the perfect fit for a character who doesn't understand the concept of irony. Bradley Cooper voices Rocket Raccoon and he does it with gusto, bringing this permanently angry creature to life with a broad vocal performance. Rocket's companion Groot only speaks three words ("I am Groot") and the "vocabulistics" [sic] are provided by Vin Diesel, whose stentorian voice was an appropriate choice for this lumbering but sweetly childlike entity (it's reminiscent of his role as the The Iron Giant in some ways).
The supporting cast are no slouches though. Michael Rooker is on fine form as Yondu, the Ravenger leader who's the nearest thing that Quill has to a father - and who puts a price on his head for betraying him over the Orb. Lee Pace gets buried under lots of makeup and a chunky costume as Ronan, but he puts in a big, booming Bad Guy performance that cuts through the prosthetic layers. Karen Gillan has little more to do than look badass as Nebula, Gamora's 'sister' in Thanos' stable of adoptive daughters, though she pulls it off admirably. Benicio del Toro has a short but creepy role as The Collector, a hoarder of intergalactic oddities first introduced in the credits stinger of Thor: The Dark World. Glenn Close and John C. Reilly get small roles as Xandarian administrators.
Guardians is a space opera through and through, though it's no mere Star Wars clone. There are superficial similarities in the characters but only because George Lucas used such broad archetypes to begin with (drawing on the works of Joseph Campbell), e.g. the youngster with a hidden destiny, the selfish mercenary who comes good, the rescue of the princess etc. Our heroes go through a classical journey of enlightenment as they realise that there's more to their existence than chasing profit or dealing death which, coincidentally, is also the basic story arc that Tony Stark follows in the original Iron Man film. So in that respect Gunn's film pays more of an homage to the roots of the MCU than it does to Lucas' space saga.
None of this is to say that the film is perfect. While the dry humour had me grinning from ear to ear, the modern style of rambling non-sequiturs won't be to everyone's taste, and the story is stuffed with so many players from so many different sides it's a little hard to keep track of who did what to whom. Character motivations also flip-flop alarmingly quickly in some cases which makes certain plot points feel a little rushed, and I feel that some extra beats for Gamora were needed to really sell her defiance of Thanos and her antagonistic relationship with Nebula (some of which can be seen in the deleted scenes on the 2D disc). And while the roster of cracking pop songs makes me want to get up and groove, I can't say the same for the score by Tyler Bates which is utterly forgettable sonic wallpaper.
However, I've still given the movie a 9/10 score because it's such an infectiously joyous and irreverent ride, and because Gunn has pulled off the trick of making an origin movie that recalls what made the MCU so enjoyable whilst simultaneously expanding the horizons of Marvel's movie empire. It's fair to say that if audiences had not bought into the space-faring premise then the entire future of the Infinity War arc could've been in jeopardy, but with the staggering box office success ($770m in worldwide receipts) it seems that Marvel can do no wrong. Guardians Of The Galaxy is better than I'd dared hope for, and it's a worthy addition to the MCU.
Disney presents this region-free UK release of Guardians on two discs, one for 3D and one for the 2D plus the special features, housed in a lovely embossed holo-foil slipcase. The film auto-plays with a trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier which can be skipped over.
The movie was shot on anamorphic for the opening scene and was switched to spherical for the remainder, captured digitally on Alexa and finished on the obligatory 2K DI with a post-conversion for the 3D edition. Director Gunn opted to create an alternating aspect ratio version for the theatrical IMAX 3D release (akin to what Chris Nolan does, though Guardians was NOT shot on any genuine IMAX cameras) which has been preserved for the 3D Blu-ray, whereas the 2D Blu-ray is in a fixed widescreen ratio. N.B. The screenshots provided in this review were captured directly from the 3D left eye stream, the slight bordering on the left hand side of some shots is due to the 'floating window' effect employed by the 3D process.
The 2D version, framed at a constant 2.40, is one of the classiest encodes I've seen in quite some time. The movie has a glossy and colourful look to it, with vividly saturated hues and stunningly intricate detail that's unencumbered by distracting edge halos or aliasing. Black levels are sumptuous, going supremely deep when called for but not crushing shadow detail either; there's a shot in the film of Quill framed against a dark background and there's a delicate spill of light over his shoulders which is beautifully realised on this disc. The gradation of all the contrasts between light and dark throughout the film are presented without so much of a hint of banding, not even in the smoke-shrouded scene when young Quill is captured at the start of the movie, and there are no obvious signs of compression issues with the more action-packed scenes. This is home video perfection, folks.
The 3D version takes all of that (with just a sprinkling of more video noise) and adds one of the better stereo conversions I've seen in a while. Marvel's Phase 2 efforts started off fairly well in that regard with the extremely effective conversion for Iron Man 3, but Thor: The Dark World was utterly bland and Winter Soldier fell somewhere inbetween the two. Gunn was very hands on during the conversion process for Guardians, making sure that it really delivered an enjoyable 3D experience for the audience and I'm pleased to say that his work has paid off.
It's not the last word in depth but the precise layering and separation is evident right from the off as young Quill cradles his Walkman in his hands, and the switching to the taller 1.78 ratio fills the screen with even more of the bright, colourful action at certain points, giving scenes like the Knowhere chase and the battle over Xandar a much greater sense of scale. The transitions between wide and tall shots are handled deftly and there are even some effects which spill over the boundaries of the 2.40 letterbox bars, which came as a nice surprise. Super stuff.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack ticks all the main boxes yet it doesn't really excel in any particular area. Speech is rendered cleanly and the score & songs sound nice enough but they tend to stay anchored to the front speakers. The rears aren't engaged as often as I'd like, though there are some nice moments when they come into play, like when Groot takes out a whole squad of Kree soldiers and you can hear his branches thrash about from side to side behind you. The bass is surprisingly lightweight, possessing little in the way of mid-range slam and low-frequency heft. There's still some bass content there, certainly, but I've heard better mixes this year.
Guardians isn't blessed with a huge amount of special features but it's certainly better than the pathetic offering dished up for Winter Soldier on Blu-ray. The length of one of Guardians' featurettes alone is longer than the entire set of video extras on Cap's sequel! Guide to the Galaxy with James Gunn runs for under 21 minutes and is a brief but informative look at certain aspects of the film, like the production design and the 'world building' aspect that Gunn brought to the show, presented with cute 8-bit video game style interstitials. The Intergalactic Visual Effects for Guardians of the Galaxy sounds grand but it's merely a 7 minute featurette about how Rocket and Groot were brought to the screen. Last of the featurettes is a 2-minute sneak peek of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Then there's 4 minutes of Deleted & Extended Scenes with optional director commentary which features more exposition and some little comedy moments deemed superfluous. We also get a 4-minute gag reel, it's not the funniest I've seen but it's worth watching to get to the four-way dance-off. Lastly is Gunn's audio commentary for the main movie, which is well worth a listen.
Guardians of the Galaxy comes as a breath of hilariously fresh air after the dark and sometimes sinister goings-on of the three prior Phase 2 movies, and I absolutely loved it. The A/V quality of this 2D/3D Blu-ray package is excellent in most aspects and it's even got a modest helping of decent extra features. It comes highly recommended.
9 out of 10
10 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10