'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Thanks to our good friends at Dolby Labs, High-Def Digest was invited to attend the world premiere of Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. Other than driving onto a historic studio backlot, nothing quite beats a Hollywood Boulevard movie premiere.
You’ve probably seen photos (or footage) of famous classic movie premieres like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Star Wars’, with the big red carpet rolling into the historic Chinese Theatre. Since ‘Guardians’ boasts a dazzling Dolby Atmos sound mix, this specific premiere was held a couple doors down the boulevard at the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak Theatre), home to the annual Academy Awards. We walked next to the red carpet where film stars Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel and Glenn Close graciously chatted with media outlets from around the world. After passing throngs of fans hoping to see anyone but me and my plus-one, we checked our phones at security, grabbed a popcorn and dropped into what turned out to be terrific off-center-left seats with a perfect view of the enormous screen.
While I generally enjoy Marvel’s movies, I’m not what you’d call a full Marvel fanboy. I went into ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ knowing absolutely nothing about this part of the Marvel Universe, save for the character Thanos, who’s the badass looking mothertrucker in the post-credits scene at the end of ‘The Avengers‘.
Much like last year’s ‘Iron Man 3‘ and this spring’s ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘, Marvel really seems eager to explore new genres and the theme of what defines a superhero. ‘Guardians’ is a great time at the movies – fun, action-packed and seemingly effortless. For the first time since the original ‘Iron Man‘, you don’t need to have seen all the other franchise entries. It feels disconnected from what’s come before, in a good way, which makes this outing feel fresh.
Let’s back up a minute and talk about story and character.
‘Guardians’ opens up on Earth. The year is 1988. A young boy named Peter Quill sits in a hospital hallway listening to his Sony Walkman. The cassette tape label says “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” and features ’70s rock tunes arranged by Quill’s cancer-ridden mother. When Quill’s Mom dies, the boy bolts out of the hospital where, impossibly, a spaceship appears and abducts him.
Smashing to the present, the adult Quill (Chris Pratt) has become a space adventurer known (only to himself) as Star-Lord. Searching for a dangerous and powerful “orb” MacGuffin, Quill finds it on an abandoned planet and, after escaping from the villain’s henchmen, quickly becomes a wanted man. Quill’s boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker) sets a bounty on his head. Then, the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) – a madman who wants to give the orb to an even bigger bad guy named Thanos so that Thanos will destroy Ronan’s mortal enemies, the Xandarians – sends Thanos’ daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to get the orb back.
Yeah, it’s a little convoluted and clunky, and it takes a few minutes to get past various villains shouting exposition about their plans and feelings. Given the world the filmmakers are setting up, these choices are also understandable. (Marvel franchise outings often improve in sequels once the origin stories are dispensed with.)
Anyway, the point is, by stealing this orb, Quill becomes a fugitive, sandwiched between Gamora and a pair of non-human bounty hunters. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a genetically engineered raccoon, who you could think of as a small, furry Hans Solo. In the Chewbacca role, we have Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like alien who can talk, but only the words “I am Groot” in slightly different tonal inflections to convey emotion.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the local authorities arrest Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot, and ship them off to space prison. However, when Gamora reveals that she wasn’t going to return the orb to Ronan, but rather sell it for $4 billion space bucks “units,” they form an unlikely alliance. With the help of another inmate, Dax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) – a warrior who wants to kill Ronan and doesn’t understand sarcasm – they must overcome personal differences, escape the prison and, while running for their lives from the likes of Ronan and Yondu, decipher the truth behind the orb’s dangerous capabilities. By the exciting climax, billions of lives will be at stake, and the only ones who can save the day are a ragtag group of misfits: one assassin, one adventurer, two bounty hunters and a warrior.
Ladies and space gentlemen, your Guardians of the Galaxy.
Directed by James Gunn (‘Super‘), with a script co-written with Nicole Perlman, ‘Guardians’ is an absolute blast. As I said, the first act is a little convoluted, and we once again have a bunch of heroes obsessed with finding a magically dangerous and powerful oddly-shaped object, but those nitpicks aside (again, I have no idea how close this all is to the source material), ‘Guardians’ has perfectly nailed tone and, by extension, character dynamics. It’s a wonderfully balanced mix of grand space adventure, sarcastic reference-based comedy, and grounded emotional arcs (albeit, sometimes these are rushed). The whole experience feels efficient and breathless.
Pratt, who voiced the main character for ‘The Lego Movie‘ earlier this year, proves himself to be a charming, charismatic leading man, while Saldana continues to bring star power to badass leading lady roles. Cooper and Diesel only appear in voice form, but they make for a hilarious Han/Chewie-esque team. However, while their CGI characters look quite good, Rocket’s raccoon fur isn’t quite as convincing as primates in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘. Bautista gives a quiet, dry performance that earns lots of laughs too. Lee Pace chews an entire solar system worth of scenery as Ronan but, while it’s a grand performance, his villain is never truly scary. Lastly are plenty of other great cameos in the movie: Djimon Hounsou and John C. Riley are heavily featured in the trailers for a reason.
The ‘Guardians’ world itself is gorgeously rendered, with a mix of computer graphics and many more practical sets than some audiences will be used to seeing in the modern green-screen era. I also loved the soundtrack. If someone pitched me the idea that, in addition to Tyler Bates’ sweeping orchestral music, a space opera would be cut to 1970s rock songs, I would have passed.
The rock n’ roll works really well. Perhaps it’s a bit of nostalgia on my part (the film’s first scene in 1988 makes me roughly the same age as Peter Quill), but I don’t think so. These song choices aren’t just a wouldn’t-it-be-cool gimmick. They aren’t like what Baz Luhrmann does either (approximate the feeling of an past era with modern influences). No, the film’s soundtrack exists as a direct extension of Peter Quill’s haunted past. They, and a few of his leftover 1980s toys, are the only things he has left to remind him of Earth, to remind him of his mother. So when these various tracks work, not only do they set the specific scene’s tone, they also reach back to Quill’s childhood to hint at his broken heart. I don’t know about you, but this device impresses me to no end. It’s simple, smart, and delivers on multiple levels. Hats off to Peter Gunn for either cracking that idea, or for saying yes to the person who pitched it.
That said, I could see some viewers not digging the mix of genres and musical eras. I also wonder how younger audiences will react to the movie’s references. Like many of the Marvel properties, this seems to be made a little more for adult audiences – for those who grew up watching Spielberg movies and reading comics. Without a direct knowledge of 1970s and 1980s pop culture, will the film work as well as it does for those who grew up in those decades? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. We’ll have to see what critics and audiences say, how the film plays over time, and how this part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe plays out. (My understanding is that the Guardians will feature heavily in ‘Avengers 3’ in addition to whatever standalone sequel adventures they may get.)
Regardless, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is an unexpected blast and two full hours of escapist fun. It’s equal parts futuristic and nostalgic, with a great sense of tone, and an absolutely awesome cast of characters. I hope we see our galactic guardians again soon.
As presented in 4K Dolby 3D, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ has one of the best Marvel 3D presentations to date, featuring a top-notch (I’m presuming here) post-conversion. While the film overall benefits from numerous daylight sequences (another plus for a space movie), even the dark scenes evoke appreciable z-axis depth. CGI and practical elements are highly detailed and (mostly) realistic. The movie’s frames team with visual activity and an engaging, florescent color palette. The Dolby Theatre’s massive temporary screen looked, at times, like a stargate into outer space.
In other words, this a gorgeous, superbly crafted blockbuster adventure that works well in stereo. With real-deal 3D like this, ‘Guardians’ should also make for fine Blu-ray demonstration material later this year. The only thing I can’t say for sure, not having seen it in 2D, is whether or not whether or not the 3D improves the experience.
The Dolby Theatre is not a full-time cinema auditorium. For each of these premiere events, sound and video engineers bring extra equipment into a room that wasn’t designed to be a movie theater, though Dolby has certainly worked to improve the room’s sound characteristics. Despite these challenges, my off-center seats were in a great place to get mostof the Atmos experience.
How did it sound? While not as subtle as the ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ mix, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ in Dolby Atmos is going to stamp a smile onto the faces of the audio fans amongst us. It has tons of LFE with big-time explosions. Panning effects are seamless and immersive and aggressive, planting you in the pilot’s seat in the middle of fights and battles. The aforementioned ’70s-heavy soundtrack comes alive as well, giving not only a wide soundstage for when the music is the star, but also in POV-style effects. An example: the music starts through muffled headphones, spreading outwards until it envelopes the whole auditorium. I look forward to seeing this again, especially if it becomes one of the first Blu-rays or digital downloads to feature the Atmos format in home cinemas.
By the way, while we’re talking Atmos, if you’ve ever wondered how theatrical film soundtracks are delivered to cinemas worldwide, or what had to change when Dolby introduced Atmos, here’s an informative article from PSN Europe about the details. Fun fact: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘ required 137 unique “Digital Cinema Packages” for its worldwide distribution.
Thanks again to Dolby and Marvel Studios for a fun night out in Hollywood. Marvel’s team of filmmakers have produced an unexpected, fresh take on the space adventure blockbuster. I truly hope our readers, and wider audiences, enjoy it as much as I did. (If you don’t, that’s okay too.) Featuring an excellent 3D presentation and another thunderously immersive Dolby Atmos sound mix, I would recommend trying to see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ on the big screen with the best sound available. In addition to 3D and Atmos, the film will also have an IMAX version with alternating aspect ratios.
Cheers and thanks for reading.