(Update: I see I managed to post this review twice several months apart with slight differences. I'll leave both in place to avoid possible broken links. The later version is here.)
This is a fun space opera with a nice sense of humor and flashes of humanity, but it has so many characters and such a convoluted plot that it would have helped if the film had come with orientation briefings on who’s who and what’s going on.
The main protagonist is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who as a child back in 1988 was abducted from Earth by a gang of space pirates known as the Ravagers. He grew up to became a member of one of their outlaw bands., and he’s ready to strike out on his own whether his redneck pirate captain (and former kidnapper) Yondu (Michael Rooker) likes it or not.
Quill has his own spaceship called the Milano (after his childhood crush, actress Alyssa Milano). He still listens to his Walkman and his one cassette, a mix tape of 70s hits his mother loved (“Hooked on a Feeling,” “Come and Get Your Love,” etc.). He calls himself Star Lord but has trouble getting anybody else to do that.
The background involves two stellar federations, the relatively benign Nova Empire, headed by a prime minister called Nova Prime (Glenn Close), and the militaristic Kree Empire, which had been at war with the Nova Empire for centuries but has just signed a peace treaty. The peace really pisses off a militant Kree named Ronan (Lee Pace) who hates anything Nova. Ronan has a tough henchman named Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and is also somehow allied with a vastly more powerful bad-guy über-alien named Thanos (glimpsed at the end of the first Avengers movie), who has only a minor part in this film but has lent Ronan two of his very dangerous adopted daughters. One of them, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), is an attractive green and the other, Nebula (Karen Gillan), is more a metallic two-tone. Both have enhanced speed and strength and are deadly in combat. In addition, Nebula has the ability to walk and pose like a model. She’s the bad one.
Early on, Quill (that’s the Earth guy turned rogue space thief, remember) finds himself in possession of the film’s MacGuffin, a mysterious and powerful orb. (Mysterious and powerful orbs served a similar plot function in the nineties sf-comedy-western series The Adventures of Brisco County Junior, but Bruce Campbell’s orbs were bigger.) A lot of people want this orb, including a broker called The Broker and a collector called The Collector, possibly because the writers themselves were having trouble keeping all the alien names and job descriptions straight. The Collector’s collection includes a Russian cosmonaut dog and another item not revealed until after the end credits, but which you’d find mildly amusing if you’re not Lea Thompson. Anyway, Yondu the space pirate captain wants the orb for its market value and Ronan the militant Kree wants it for more ambitious reasons, so he sends Gamora (that’s the green Zoe Saldana, remember?) to fetch it from Quill.
And yes, this will all be on the exam.
Amazingly, there are some major characters who aren’t after the orb, notably a raccoon and a tree. They’re after Quill, but only to collect a 40,000-monetary-unit bounty separately offered by his pissed-off former abductor-turned-employer Yondu for Quill’s capture and return in good condition so Yondu can get to be the one who puts him in bad condition.
No, I didn’t make up the tree and the raccoon to see if you’re paying attention. The raccoon-looking thing, called Rocket, is a genetically and otherwise modified creature with a high order of intelligence, technical skill, and a tendency to be a smart-ass. He’s voiced by Bradley Cooper (who also plays the title role in American Sniper), though he was portrayed on set by director James Gunn’s brother Sean in a green (or sometimes blue) body suit, so the other actors would have somebody to interact with. He also did Rocket’s lines during shooting and apparently ad-libbed a lot of things later recorded by Cooper. Sean Gunn happens to be a tall, thin guy, so he had to squat for almost all his scenes, including walking that way. It’s worth watching the “making-of” extra on the DVD or Blu-ray just to see how weird this looks.
The tree can walk and talk, but he only knows how to say “I am Groot.” Despite that limitation, he is able by means of expressive inflection to convey a lot more meaning than you might expect. Groot’s voice is supplied by Vin Diesel, and not just in English but also in Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, English, and perhaps a few other languages as well for the international versions of the film. Diesel says that counting all the variant intonations, languages, and multiple takes, he said “I am Groot” over a thousand times.
The other major character is Drax (former pro wrestler Dave Bautista), a hulking pile of muscle who wants to kill Ronan for murdering his wife and child. As with the other characters, he turns out to be much more interesting than he first appears.
The film is of course crammed full of computer-generated special effects and fight scenes, but for once they don’t entirely replace characterization or ideas, which might help explain why the film was such an unexpected hit.
Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman, started out making movies for low-budget comedy-horror producer Troma, and Troma-cofounder Lloyd Kauffman has a cameo as a prisoner in a violent space jail. Stan Lee (who invented the Groot character back in the 1960s as well as various pieces of the backstory) shows up briefly as well, as in every Marvel film, this time playing a sort of aging Casanova.