Ah. There we go. A wide-open galaxy full of hyper-fast spaceships, exotic alien species and swashbuckling adventure. That’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Hollywood, was that really so hard?
Apparently it was. So much of what passes for science-fiction these days is small and cramped, inward-looking and cynical. Especially on the print side. It’s almost as if many current practitioners of the genre don’t actually like science-fiction very much, or are embarrassed by the whole “spaceships and aliens” thing.
The creators of GOTG apparently remembered why generations of young fans stayed up all night reading dog-eared sci-fi paperback novels. They understood why all those kids stood in line 10 times in a single week to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977. Guardians of the Galaxy is space opera on a grand scale, with painful conflicts for the protagonists to overcome, but a joyful feeling woven into the background. It conveys the sense of a galaxy unbound, of endless possibilities. In the course of the film we fly to astonishing worlds and civilizations. Every scene featuring space in the background is churning with glowing nebulas and roiling clouds of gas. This is not space as a cold vacuum, but a living environment that’s almost a character in its own right.
And make no mistake—this is a science-fiction adventure movie first and foremost. It may come from Marvel, home of those superheroes you’ve probably heard about, but this is no costumed crime caper, at least in the traditional sense. The Guardians have heroic feats to perform, but they don’t fall into the standard superhero mold. Each of the five have different powers and abilities and very clearly-defined personalities. They are thrown together as they seek, for varying reasons, a mysterious orb of great power. Their predicament and character development reminded me a little bit of a certain Firefly crew—smugglers, mercenaries and haunted souls forced to work as a team for a higher purpose.
If there’s one weakness of the film that goes right to the precipice of being annoying, it’s the reliance on Baby Boomer (or even Gen-X) pop culture references for laughs. What saves it from dragging down the whole enterprise is a nicely-crafted and touching backstory for “Star Lord” Peter Quill that gives him good reason to hang onto the cassette-tape songs from his past. It doesn’t hurt that the 1970s-era tunes selected for the soundtrack are so appealingly catchy.
Fans of nuts-and-bolts hard science-fiction may also feel the temptation to roll their eyes at the ease with which these techno-miracles appear on screen. I understand that temptation. All too often the “science” part of science-fiction gets tossed out the airlock if it gets in the way of a good yarn. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably guilty of this. The movie doesn’t slow down long enough to explain how these starships are zipping from planet to planet so quickly and easily. Faster-than-light travel is just baked into the Guardians universe, as are all the other feats of questionable physics.
Just go with it. We get little enough fun space opera as it is. If I have to choose between another round of zombie apocalypses, YA dystopias, environmental disasters, and mutating viruses, or the joy of a swashbuckling space opera, I’ll take the cool starships and exotic aliens any day.