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Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Hooker, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro
Directed by James Gunn

Produced by Kevin Feiger
Director of Photography, Ben Davis
Production Design by Brad Ricker
Edited by Todd E. Miller and Vince Fiippone
Screenplay by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Based on Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Music by Tyler Bates

One of the happiest film stories of 2014 is the rousing, much-deserved, and continuing, runaway success of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a wholly entertaining, funny, action-packed, quirky and even endearing science-fiction film that seemingly came straight out of left field and promptly, solidly became the highest-grossing film of the summer of 2014 and the highest-grossing film in the United States so far in 2014. As of mid-September, 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper and directed and co-written by James Gunn, has grossed a whopping, eye-opening $300 domestically and another whopping $300 internationally, and the film “is the only movie of the year to cross $300 million domestically,” according to Variety. “Guardians” enjoyed a well-deserved three consecutive weeks at number-one at the box office this summer, with another, non-consecutive week at number-one in there for good measure.

And, for once with a big-budget, wide-release summer blockbuster (the film’s estimated budget was a humongous $170 million), “Guardians’” dominating success is completely deserved. “Guardians” is the type of enjoyable, lighthearted, swiftly-paced and, yes, smart blockbuster that actually deserves its blockbuster success on every level, reaching across stereotypical genre audience constrictions and demanding genre core audiences to wildly succeeding as a film for everyone, a film that even those who usually don’t enjoy sci-fi or fantasy films can wholeheartedly enjoy. And while the film blatantly, but knowingly, borrows from a thousand other sci-fi and fantasy films—proudly, obviously, tongue-firmly-in-cheek and with an in-joke-awareness and pay-homage-to nod-and-a-wink to its predecessors—the film quietly also reaches the high-quality level of the very films that it pays homage to, pays respect to and strives to equal.

While filmgoers can clearly see homages to “Star Wars,” the better “Star Trek” films, “Flash Gordon,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Rocketeer,” the Indiana Jones films and, in a fantasy-like way, Peter Jackson’s “Rings” and “Hobbit films,” the film can comfortably and easily take its place among these and other quality sci-fi and fantasy films (excluding the ‘80s “Flash,” which was a failed experiment). And that means that filmgoers who don’t usually head out to see sci-fi and fantasy films can enjoy “Guardians,” much like they enjoyed other similar genre films that earned similar widespread success.

And that leads to some lessons for Hollywood, because despite continued huge box office receipts for films based on comic books, superhero stories, animation franchises and other reboots, remakes, prequels, sequels and re-imaginings, the frustrated, accurate cries of exasperation, anger, annoyance and tiredness from fans regarding the general lameness, unimaginative stories and tired sequels has continued to rise, to the point that some previously loyal genre fans have simply stopped going to these types of movies. Again, despite huge box office for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and, gawd almighty, a reboot of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” of all things great and small, in 2014, the year’s box office—and general interest and credibility in films—are all frighteningly down, down, down for the year. The very real cries of frustration from filmgoers—aside from enjoying “Guardians” and a handful of other quality films—is prompting some in Hollywood to—again—rethink the long-tired reliance on simply pumping out these lame franchises sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots. That’s a good thing, because, again, most of them are just awful.

However, rising above the continuously flowing tide of mediocrity at the multiplexes, the smart, funny—and visually impressive—“Guardians” rises so far above the pack, the movie easily qualifies as one of the better movies of the summer of 2014 and of 2014 in general.

Wonderfully and wisely adapted for all audiences, “Guardians” registers as a welcome bit of relief, a film of pure entertainment at the movies. Smartly combining elements of sci-fi and fantasy with plenty of humor, action, beautiful visuals and special effects, pop culture references, in-jokes, some drama and even a hint, just a hint, of romance, “Guardians” can then be a little bit of something for everyone.

Some diehard nitpickers may say that there’s nothing new about this particular genre approach—combining various elements of storytelling and genres in an obviously populist package to reach wide audiences and appeal to all demographics—and they would be correct. There’s nothing new about this approach, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with it, too. However, the trick to a successful implementation of a genre film that appeals to everyone is smart writing, original flourishes, a keen sense of tongue-in-cheek and humorous self-awareness, a sprinkling of cool, hip in-jokes and cultural references to ward off the geekiness factor, a quick pace, tough action that is believable and even a bit gritty (but not too gritty), beautiful production design (in abundance throughout “Guardians”), and, perhaps most important of all these days, in all genres, a genuine heart, genuinely likeable characters; and a generally positive and even happy demeanor.

“Guardians” truly has all of this, and seeing the film results in the type of experience in which you walk out of the theater smiling, and energized—in part because you feel like you’ve just spent some time with a batchful of fun, funny, interesting, crazily unique and original characters and personalities. Alas, that isn’t always the case with many modern-day films and television shows—you have to search, Waldo-like, to find a likeable, positive character. There are just too many overly-Gothic, deeply-dark, depressing and just dour productions. And too many films and shows filled with obnoxious, idiotic people yelling, screaming and arguing about things no one really needs to yell, scream or argue about. These are generally people who most people could care less about. What is the point of all that, and where’s the fun in all of that?

“Guardians” avoids this dank and downer approach to characters. Even the villains are more like the old-fashioned variety, as they’re not so repulsive and offensive that they end up being difficult to watch. The villains are stock villains from Old School of Villains—evil and hateful, yes, but still interesting and entertaining to watch, and even enjoy.

However, it’s the endearing, likeable, funny and unique heroes that steal the galactic show in “Guardians.” They, too, are from the Old School of Heroes—the Handsome, Dashing, Smart and Strong Lead Guy (recalling James T. Kirk, Han Solo and Indiana Jones); the Beautifully and Weirdly Exotic Alien Girl (green, in this film, recalling the many enticing, sexy green alien women from “Star Trek”); the Gentle Bear of a Huge, Brutish, Hulking Mass of Man, Alien and Machismo (recalling the Hulk and the more compassionate, humane Frankenstein creatures); and, just to remind us that this is pure sci-fi and fantasy, the Street-Wise, Wise-Cracking Creature, in this case something that is some type of raccoon/android/robot/human mixed breed; and, possibly most memorably, a towering, mostly-silent, lovable living tree creature named Groot who only says “I am Groot,” and nothing more.

A slimmed-down, more-buff Chris Pratt (from “Parks and Recreation”) (Pratt reportedly lost 60 pounds in six months for the role, according to some media reports) plays Peter Quill, the leading guy, the handsome, dashing, smart and strong guy. Pratt, though, brings something else to his role as Quill that many other similar leading action, sci-fi and fantasy actors often forget to bring to the set—humor and humility. Pratt is just a naturally funny guy. He also has a relatable, humble quality that doesn’t put you off, and a lovable quality that does make you just like the character. Quill is also given something in the story that also makes him instantly likeable, but that plot point won’t be revealed here, even if, by this time in mid-September, 2014, most of the movie-going world has already seen the film. But this story and plot point is not included as a gimmick, but as a special, heartfelt reason—and story-driving plot element—that propels Quill’s actions, personality quirks, and his moral, heroic stances through the film. The screenwriters, basing their story on original Marvel comics, took a chance with this particular story element, but it’s a chance that works, pays off in the end, and keeps the fantasy and sci-fi film still rooted and grounded in humanity—and humility.

In “Guardians,” Quill, who is somewhat of a roaming, rummaging, ragtag renegade rogue and rover-about-space, steals a mysterious, but quite dangerous, orb during one of his nomadic adventures in space. The orb is wanted by the main, scary Villain, Ronan the Accuser (everyone in “Galaxy” has great names—a subtle, but important, aspect of good writing, even if it seems simple on the surface), who badly wants the orb to work out a deal to well, basically control and take over the universe, to simplify the story. Quill is also wanted by the blue-skinned, conflicted Yondu Udonta, who leads a colorfully ragtag group of rogue space pirates called The Ravagers, who have a lifelong connection to Quill. Actually, everyone is after Quill and the orb, for various reasons, including the aforementioned green-skinned beauty, Gamora, and two bounty hunters, the android/human raccoon Rocket and his partner in bounty hunting, the strong and silent Groot.

Soon, through a series of fights, chases, imprisonments, evasions, deals, double-deals, webs of deceptions, storylines, plots, subplots and other dirty dealings that actually are quite layered, connected and intricately woven so you actually have to pay attention to what is actually going on, Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and the hulking, bulky Drax the Destroyer—again, a character that is eventually likeable despite his imposing, initially-threatening presence—all join together as an unexpectedly heroic team—a humorous, humble, quirky, likeable and always-interesting team—to protect and safeguard the orb from Ronan, Yondu, and other villains, to save the universe, and, yes, to be, essentially, for a while, guardians of the galaxy.

Pratt, as mentioned, is likeable and funny as Quill, but this is an ensemble film, and he is ably helped by a great ensemble. Zoe Saldana, who is building quite the sci-fi resume with roles in “Avatar” and the two “Star Trek” reboot films, is beautiful, lithe and attractive as the deadly assassin and eventual good-girl Gamora, bathed in green make-up but still pretty. Saldana isn’t the stand-out actor on this set, but she makes up for lacking deep acting challenges here with a natural beauty and a strong physical presence. Bradley Cooper, on a torrid hot streak in film, tears it up and steals every scene and elicits laughs as Rocket, a type of Joe Pesci/Steve Buscemi/Joe Pantoliano of the sci-fi, genetically-altered, part-human-part-raccoon very small corner of the universe.

Rocket is the type of character perfected by Pesci, Buscemi and Pantoliano, in which the fast-talking, not-quite-trustworthy, shady-eyed street toughs can alternately repulse you, make you laugh, and, eventually, make you like them, whether you want to or not. Vin Diesel, who is usually not the leading thespian on the set, and that is not a catty comment, actually demonstrates here a unique and impressive acting stunt with his portrayal of Groot—he completely creates emotion from a computer-generated creature who only speaks one line of dialogue, and not that often at that. But demonstrating a success with a challenging acting feat, Diesel uses that one line to emote various emotions by changing up the tone, pitch and delivery of the line to convey actual feelings. That is not an easy feat, and Diesel succeeds, to the credit of himself and the film. The same can be said for Cooper’s Rocket. You do forget it’s Bradley Cooper, and Cooper, also, has to act through a computer-generated character that could be, but isn’t, one or two steps away from ridiculousness or campiness. It’s a credit to real, challenging acting in the studio by Diesel and Cooper that these fantasy creatures come to life on film. A good recent comparison is the incredible work that Andy Serkis accomplished so well in the “Rings” and “Hobbit” films and in Jackson’s excellent remake of “King Kong.”

Dave Bautista, a professional wrestler and mixed-martial-arts fighter, is relatively new to film acting, and he does recall the Hulk, but Bautista, too, makes Drax the Destroyer—a reluctant hero who has his own conflicts and issues to deal with—interesting with some off-the-wall line readings (some might say it’s less-than-stellar acting, but it works) and strangely-subtle humor that will make you laugh seconds later, as it’s not traditional humorous line readings that Bautista delivers. Bautista, although his character is part-human, is also buried beneath make-up, like Gamora, and he must also strive to make his sci-fi character more human. And when big, hulking, macho guys give up some of their interior feelings and let their emotions come through, it’s a breakthrough for the characters—and the actors. Dwayne Johnson, more than just about anyone in recent years, has been able and adept at this, and that accounts for his enduring popularity. The trick is to erase that inherent arrogance and snottiness—and let your emotions overpower your machismo. Some of the Expendables might take a cue from Johnson and Bautista.

Michael Rooker, the creepy redneck moron from AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” hams it up—accordingly and enjoyable—as the blue Yondu, and, interestingly, director Gunn lets Rooker keep his backwoods country accent, which just makes the portrayal even more hilarious and entertaining and oddball. To see this wildly-garbed, blue-skinned, crazy space pirate chase and threaten people through the galaxy with an accent straight out of some deep forest in the Deep South is just funny. Science fiction space pirates can have country accents, too.

Pratt and company simply excel at these sci-fi roles. Again, all of them could easily fall into sub-par camp, unintended parody or comedy and rip-off characters—and ridiculousness–but the writing, by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, and the acting chops, by all involved, are all too smart and savvy to let that happen. It doesn’t matter if Quill makes mistakes every now and then, if Gamora is green and sexy, if Rocket is a talking raccoon android hybrid, if Drax appears simple-minded yet states unintended pearls of wisdom, if Yondu is blue and speaks like a good ol’ country boy, and if Groot is a tree-person—it all works beautifully in the end.

Good sports Glenn Close and Benicio del Toro—good sports because these actors do not usually pop up in fantasy or sci-fi films on a continual, regular basis—provide some dramatic and comedic relief in small, supporting roles.

In the end, and it’s not giving anything away, the ragtag renegades—and guardians of the galaxy—protect the orb, keep it out of the hands of the bad guys, and save the universe. What other possible conclusion could there be? This is the type of film where you know there is going to be a happy ending, and that is only a good thing.

At the very end of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there is a short note—obviously reminiscent of the equally endearing and enduring James Bond series—that says, “’Guardians of the Galaxy’ will return.” Variety reports that “Guardians 2” is already scheduled to be released on July 28, 2017. With too many of these types of genre films these days, a note promising a return of even such lovable characters, smart stories and intricately-layered pure science fiction tales could be met with those previously-mentioned, stereotypical sighs, rolling of the eyes and concurrent grunts and moans of exasperation. In the case of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” however, a promise of a return sequel should only elicit an enthusiastic response of “That’s great! When does the sequel come out?”

I am Groot, indeed.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.