Monday 15 May 2023

Spaceballs: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"

A full eight hours of exposure over the past decade has revealed that the Guardians of the Galaxy and I are unlikely ever to exist on the same wavelength. Where the franchise's most ardent fans have seen the highest of multiplex hijinks, I'm afraid I've only witnessed a facepainted intergalactic sitcom, something like Mel Brooks's Spaceballs, only with a mile-wide streak of sap and substantially weaker gagwriting. (What cracks up the GOTG hardcore is a giant ambulant treebranch, voiced by Vin Diesel, saying the same three words over and over again. Yeah, I'm out.) This series has been instructive in one respect, however: it's proven how, at its commercial and creative zenith, the Marvel Cinematic Universe could popularise and monetise even its third-string characters. But to cheer that would mean buying into the mass delusion that this vast corporate superstructure has been nurturing worthy popular art rather than, say, the cinematic equivalent of knotweed. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 continues the series' drift away from the human and into the realms of expensively digitised but otherwise half-assed trivia; it's a finale (of sorts) that feels like an overextended footnote to what those fans would doubtless call a golden age of comic-book movies. At the end of a broadly dismal period for the American mainstream, during which it became clear money, imagination and viewer attentions were being systematically misapplied, this is what everything apparently now boils down to: an origin story for a talking raccoon. No wonder the writers have gone out on strike.

If you think that's depressing, you should see the state the characters find themselves in. Chris Pratt's Captain Blando is heartbroken because the girl he loves (Zoe Saldana, her Avatar blue retinted Gamora green) no longer recognises him, much as audiences barely recognise Pratt from the spirited, genuinely funny presence he was circa Parks & Rec. There is a general funk hanging over his fellow Guardians that has something to do with the end of Avengers: Infinity War, a cataclysm the MCU continues to invoke as a cross between 9/11 and the Fall of Man, never mind that three-quarters of its narrative strategies have subsequently been taken back. In short, everyone - not least writer-director James Gunn, bidding farewell to the MCU before decamping to head up DC's movie division - is looking for a reason to carry on, and to get the old band back together even as the series means to split them all up for good. This is why we learn Rocket, the gun-toting CG raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, has been fitted with an internal kill switch by an evil tech firm. (Funny that this ticking timebomb should only come up three movies in, but sequel needs must.) Captain Blah's efforts to save his furry friend is but one of several elements thrown together in a bid to persuade us this is a proper film with a proper story rather than, y'know, a bunch of arbitrary, free-floating stuff funded to the tune of $250m. There is also Captain Mid's efforts to get back in his grumpy beloved's good books, and thence her heart; a lot of inter-Guardian bickering that Gunn mistakenly thinks gets funnier the louder it gets; and the arrival of Will Poulter and Elizabeth Debicki, generally propitious signs, albeit with their faces sprayed gold, a far less promising sign. If there's one thing you take away from GotGV3 - and there may only be one thing you can take away from a film this forgettable - it's pretty much what you'd take away from a fourth birthday party overseen by a sociopath. Nobody - and I do mean nobody - escapes the facepainter.

Having spotted that the grand design is effectively piffle, you can start to relax and notice the occasional felicity amid the usual MCU bombast - those rare moments where some of the ridiculous moolah involved was at least diverted towards a temporarily pleasing effect. It's quite fun that the tech firm should have its HQ on the same planet as New Order's "True Faith" video: if the general air of juvenilia is hardly dispelled by the fact much of the early action looks to be unfolding within a vast soft play area (complete with Peter Simon-style vats of custard), it opens up a palette of colours and textures beyond the remit of the average DC drabfest. And I guess it's nice that Marvel-scaled royalty cheques should currently be dropping on the welcome mats of the Flaming Lips, Faith No More and Matt Johnson of The The. Yet Gunn's scratchy, scrappy B-movie sensibility, which once seemed semi-valuable (The Specials, Slither, even Super in part) when set in opposition to the mainstream, looks direly overstretched and, worse still, sorely neutered when repositioned at the heart of the multiplex: all fantasy violence, no more forceful than the click of a mouse. (A radio channel has to be switched off before Captain Meh can complete the phrase "piece of shit".) It may be Gunn's benefit - if not necessarily ours, thinking back to The Suicide Squad - that he's defecting to DC, a corporate enterprise that has traditionally afforded its characters and creatives alike a freer hand when it comes to douchebaggery.

Here, though, we're stuck with two-and-a-half hours of lurching between strands (and often individual shots) that don't smoothly connect, with frequent big explosions to help cover (or distract from) the joins, and a lot of talking CG animals that set me in mind of Tim Allen in and as The Shaggy Dog. (One credit really sinks the heart: "War-Pig: Judy Greer". And to think we could have had a second season of Reboot.) I've been unusually cheery entering and leaving the multiplex in recent months, because even the studio product that hasn't worked has been lively and diverse. (The period between Oscar night and May Day looks to have been designated Hollywood's R&D season: we've got screens to fill, may as well roll the dice and see what clicks.) A lot of that optimism ebbed away over these 150 minutes, however, and I spent much of that time ruminating on what was most depressing: the existence of a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, its vast financial success, or the work of those critics who've written about Gunn's film with a wholly straight face, as if it were Animal Farm or Bergman or something that needed a case making for it, rather than an artless splurging of time and money, unduly rewarded with bums on seats. Well, maybe folks have been turning out for the ceremonial packing away of another childish thing. "The dog days are over," howl Florence and her machine over Vol. 3's outro, a hopeful thought almost instantly undermined by post-credit sequences that hold out the promise-threat of further misadventures featuring a decidedly D-list reserve squad. Speaking on behalf of the grown-ups in the room: can we have our cinema back at some point?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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