What do you do when you have a bunch of leftover characters and ideas and you want to make a movie out of them, perhaps even a franchise?
If you’re Marvel Comics or Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, you make Guardians of the Galaxy and The Zero Theorem, two sci-fi films arriving in Toronto theatres Friday. They strive to spin gold out of dross by pulling together shiny spare parts; only one really succeeds.
The first and better of these junkyard adventures, the wide-opening Guardians of the Galaxy, is the one with franchise ambitions.
Which it will likely attain — there are already plans for a sequel — because the characters are great and the movie is often very funny. But you have to hope that Marvel gets away from using leftover stories, too.
These Guardians are a motley crew of celestial badasses and smartasses: giant grunting tree Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel; sarcastic mutant varmint Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper; pompous tattooed strongman Drax, played by WWF strongman Dave Bautista; and green-skinned ninja Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana.
The fifth member of the group is the only recognizably human one: Chris Pratt’s treasure raider Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, who was abducted as a child by space scavengers, who also inducted him into their mercenary business.
With the exception of Groot, a character dating back to the late 1950s, all of the Guardians are Marvel Comics creations from the 1970s. This could explain the film’s obsession with ’70s pop tunes like Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling,” on a cassette mix tape that Quill holds dear and which he plays on an ancient Sony Walkman.
The five Guardians all have their own attitudes and agendas, none of which draws them voluntarily together. But fate — in the form of an all-powerful orb that could destroy the universe — forces them to work together for the greater good or the lesser bad, whichever comes first and easiest.
Here’s where director James Gunn (Super) and his co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman fumble the orb just a little bit, because it’s just the same-old, same-old sci-fi staple of a cataclysmic MacGuffin being fought over by celestial freaks.
And there are way too many freaks jammed into the film, which runs long at just over two hours and explodes stuff to the point of numbness. The main villain is the Phantom Menace-hooded Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who takes life a lot more seriously than the Guardians do.
He wants that orb, dammit, so he can blow up a bunch of planets and then rule what’s left of the galaxy. He’s like the Nazis seeking the Holy Gail in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie Guardians gleefully pillages, along with Star Wars, Galaxy Quest, Serenity and any number of other sci-fi spectacles of the past century.
The film really does seem like a dumping ground of recycled ideas, which I suppose is part of the joke. When one of your cosmic hangouts is called “Knowhere,” you’re not aiming to outdo the space visions of Kubrick or Tarkovsky.
“I don’t learn,” Quill quips knowingly at one point. “One of my issues.”
But you can forgive the lack of narrative novelty because the main characters seem so fresh, even if they are all castoffs. They make for quite the entertaining eyeful together on the screen.
Groot and Rocket Raccoon are the instant attractions, doing a celestial Mutt and Jeff or Laurel and Hardy routine that manages to be both cynical and sincere at the same time. Expect many Groot and Rocket admirers on the streets this Halloween.
Pratt is the big revelation, though. He’s paid his dues playing the comic sidekick opposite bigger stars in many other movies and also TV’s Parks and Recreation, but he’s got the chops for action hero status of the Han Solo or Indiana Jones wise guy variety.
He demonstrated his lead character potential earlier this year in The LEGO Movie, which Guardians of the Galaxy also resembles, come to think of it. Except the patchwork characters and story of LEGO were by design, whereas Guardians seems more like a series of happy accidents — but happy all the same.
The same can’t exactly be said of Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, which the film director and Python animator calls the final part of his “Orwellian Trilogy,” which began with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.
Already out on DVD, it’s opening only at the Royal and almost escaped getting any kind of Canadian theatrical release had not Gilliam personally intervened.
With Pat Rushin scripting and a hairless Christoph Waltz leading, it’s more of the usual Gilliam compost heap of extravagant visuals and dystopic sentiments, set this time in a near-future London ruled by computers and a soulless corporation called Mancom.
Waltz is an Orwellian tech drone named Qohen, although his supervisor (David Thewlis) keeps calling him “Quinn,” in a joke that doesn’t work the first time and is repeated incessantly.
Qohen is searching for the Zero Theorem, a mathematical formula that may not exist, but if it does could provide the answer to life, the universe and everything (paging the ghost of Douglas Adams).
Perpetually sad, not enjoying himself at all, our anti-hero works inside an abandoned old church that really does look like a junkyard. Management (Matt Damon) tries to keep him going by sending along a daffy shrink (Tilda Swinton), a teasing sex worker (Melanie Thierry) and an obnoxious teen computer whiz (Moonrise Kingdom’s Lucas Hedges).
As usual with Gilliam’s films, the production is more delightful to behold than to parse. Sight gags abound, such as a party scene where participants remain plugged into their smartphones rather than communing in person. There’s a real sense of melancholy in the film, a lament that we have all been too eager to trade the human realm for the virtual one.
But despite stellar work from his actors, and with Gilliam making the most of an obviously limited budget, it’s hard not to think of the film itself when Thewlis cynically tells Waltz: “Everything adds up to nothing. That’s the point.”