On the 500th episode of Filmspotting, Rian Johnson, current writer/director of the upcoming Star Wars VIII said, “Good film criticism, from my perspective, is not a grade on a term paper telling the filmmaker what they did right or wrong. It’s a writer who has seen a film and had an experience of it and is writing honestly about what they experienced in that theater.” My experience of seeing Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t “a grade on a term paper” defining the quality of the movie, and I want to share that experience with you. That experience begins over a year and a half ago on January 14, 2013.
On that day, I went to the Vintage Village theater on Coronado Island to see Zero Dark Thirty, Katheryn Bigelow’s procedural about killing Usama bin Ladin. This was the first time I visited this theater, so I was surprised to find it styled like a theater from my childhood. There is no stadium seating, no commercials play before the trailers, and even the “throw away your trash” and “coming attraction” trailers that play just before the trailers are from 1993 (like this one). Before Zero Dark Thirty began, I was lulled into a nostalgic revelry for my childhood.
Zero Dark Thirty begins with a completely black screen and a stereo mix of news reports, people’s screams, sirens, and the other sounds associated with the attack on the World Trade Centers on 9/11. The film does this in order to take the audience back to that moment so we are better able to understand Maya, the main character’s, point of view as she attempts to locate and kill Usama bin Ladin. For me, the theater I was sitting in had already taken me back beyond that point to my childhood, so when the sounds of 9/11 began filling the theater, I was moved forward emotionally to one of the most traumatic moments of my life, to the moment when a significant portion of my innocence was lost.
I hadn’t been back to that theater until this past weekend when I went there to see Guardians of the Galaxy, and I had forgotten about the theater’s early-90s vibe. As soon as I walked in though, my Zero Dark Thirty experience came rushing back, and this contributed heavily to my experience of Guardians of the Galaxy in a way that both complimented and complicated the intentions of the film.
The most consistent and consistently funny jokes in Guardians of the Galaxy are pop-culture references, but not modern pop-culture references like the ones you’d find in a sub-par Dreamworks cartoon, but pop-culture references from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And these references extend beyond the prominently featured music to visual and plot beats as well.
The first we meet the adult Peter Quill, aka Star-lord, he’s on an Indiana Jones-style mission to retrieve an artifact from an ancient temple. A villain’s advisor’s appearance and voice is a direct reference to The Empire Strikes Back‘s Emperor. One battle sequence amounts to a spectacular game of bumper cars. Even the final defeat of the bad guy depends on a nostalgic, pop-culture reference. I could go on and on. The nostalgia is what makes the movie entertaining.
Because of this insistence on nostalgia and because of my previous emotional experience in that theater, I was caught for the duration of the film between my childhood and the moment my childhood ended on September 11, 2001.
So when, during the finale, the villain commands his fighter jets to begin dive-bombing into buildings while the citizenry runs screaming through the streets below, I couldn’t think of anything but airplanes hitting World Trade Center towers while New Yorkers hurried to escape the debris. Then, when one of our heroes mounts a counter-attack by positioning his fighter near the ground and shooting the dive-bombing fighters out of the sky before they make contact with any buildings, I couldn’t help by wish we had had a Rocket Raccoon on our side thirteen years ago. The longer this went on, the more Guardians of the Galaxy began to look, to me, like wish fulfillment, as if had we only been able to hold on to our innocence a little longer, we might have been able to overcome the terror that descended on our society that fateful day. Perhaps our innocence could have shielded us from the loss.
Three of the heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy have experienced significant loss. They respond to this loss in different ways. Some seek embittered vengeance. Others deny the loss. Only one character, Groot, apparently hasn’t experienced any loss at all, and I don’t think it’s an accident that he is the most innocent member of the team throughout, that he delivers the film’s most innocent moment (What’s more innocent than a firefly?), that he’s is the most innocent still as the film ends, and that he seems to be the character fans are most fully embracing.
The moment in Guardian of the Galaxy clearly meant to be its most touching is the one in which a character stops denying the loss she or he has experienced and embraces it instead. On the other side of this acceptance, there is more nostalgia, more innocence. I think there is truth in that. The first stage of grief is denial, and the final stage is acceptance. Beyond that is peace. I think the film’s intention is to share this truth.
I also think it is too messy of a film to convey this truth with any impact. In the midst of all the action, not enough time is spent cinematically establishing and exploring the motivations of all these characters to give any weight to this emotional pay-off and the emotional encouragement that ought to come with it. I so identified with the vibrancy of the innocent nostalgia on-screen, I wanted a more measured, sensitive handling of the film’s resolution. I needed it, because I had just spent two hours regaining and losing my childhood all over again.
Here are a few more reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy you might find helpful: