Guardians of the Galaxy (PG13)
Sci-fi/121 minutes/Opens today
The story : Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is interstellar treasure hunter Star-Lord. His latest score - a strange orb from an abandoned temple - has made him the target of genocidal maniac Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). After being arrested and incarcerated, he forms an uneasy alliance with fellow inmates Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Together, they set out to escape prison, fence the orb and settle old scores, only to discover that the fate of the universe is at stake.
If the Avengers were The Beatles, then the Guardians are The Rolling Stones. So says James Gunn, the director of the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be set almost entirely outside earth.
It is a fitting analogy, seeing that the irreverent protagonists of this space opera are the antithesis of Nick Fury's do-gooder heroes.
This quintet of crooks are - in the words of one of their members, femme fatale Gamora - the "biggest idiots in the galaxy".
Yet, these misfits are really just misunderstood.
Peter Quill - known as Star-Lord only to himself - is an orphan who grew up away from earth.
Gamora seeks redemption for her past sins under the command of her adoptive father, Ronan, a mass murderer who favours her treacherous adopted sister, Nebula (Doctor Who star Karen Gillan).
Genetically engineered raccoon Rocket is insecure about his identity as a failed science experiment, while Groot, a tree-like alien, is an innocent caught up in his furry accomplice's criminal life.
Lastly, Drax has an axe to grind with Ronan, who killed his wife and daughter.
They are all losers in every sense, and that's what makes them so empathetic. Each also has a reason, selfish or otherwise, to keep the movie's MacGuffin - which Quill aptly describes as having an "Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon vibe" - for himself or herself.
The movie's charm lies in how these foes who want to kill each other turn into allies who would die for one another. The development of their relationships feels organic and, surprisingly, touching.
The main cast bring their A-game to this intergalactic A-team: Chris Pratt - who was another accidental hero in The Lego Movie this year - channels Harrison Ford's Hans Solo as the raffish Quill, a kid-at-heart who listens to 70s-era music on his Walkman and makes outdated pop-culture references.
Zoe Saldana, who played a blue-skinned alien in Avatar (2009), is now a deadlier green one. Former wrestler Dave Bautista brings unexpected pathos to his role as a widower, along with the laughs as a literal-minded meathead.
It is the odd couple Rocket and Groot, both amazingly life-like CGI creations, who steal the show. Bradley Cooper gives his cute and cantankerous critter a Mafioso drawl, while Vin Diesel manages to convey a range of emotions with just three words: I, Am and Groot.
Shame, though, that the villains are not as interesting as the heroes. Ronan's characterisation doesn't extend beyond "I am evil" and his goal doesn't go deeper than "I want to take over the universe".
Some of the swearing and lowbrow humour, uncharacteristic of a Disney/Marvel movie, might put off sensitive types and parents, although I bet younger audience members will relish them.
What is refreshing is that this film takes the viewer to more varied settings than any other Marvel movie - from the clinical utopia of Xandar to the gritty mines of Knowhere. All are beautifully realised, as well as outer space itself, awash in a psychedelic colour palette.
The props and garb have an old-school look, while the soundtrack features retro tunes like Redbones' Come And Get Your Love.
To sum it up, this is a movie of contrasts. Although the setting is the present, the sights and sounds are from the past. The visuals are pretty, but the jokes are dirty.
The tone is sometimes snarky, other times, sentimental. The bad guys turn out to be the good guys.
And the worst of enemies can become the best of friends.
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