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“When I Left Earth”: The Simple Childhood Trauma of “Guardians of the Galaxy”

This Saturday, to mark the release of Captain Marvel, I will be discussing Guardians of the Galaxy on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to the podcast here.

Twenty-one films in, there is a solid argument to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy ranks among the very best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Variety has consistently ranked Guardians of the Galaxy the best film in the shared universe on its own frequently updated list. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film is ranked joint sixth (but on the fourth tier) of Marvel movies in terms of review aggregation. On a list that included non-Marvel-Studios-properties, MetaCritic ranked the film as the fifth best of the top fifty Marvel films released in the twenty-first century. It landed in the same position on a similar list compiled by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian. It ranked second on the list compiled by The Independent. Although such a metric is hardly absolute and academic, it is also one of the longest-enduring Marvel films on the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time.

Similarly, the film endures in popular culture. It is arguably one of the most influential blockbusters of the past decade. It was notably the first film to have its soundtrack top the Billboard album charts without an original song on it. Although directors like Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater had defined the “jukebox soundtrack”, Guardians of the Galaxy turned it into a standard for blockbuster films. Somewhat ironically, given how James Gunn’s career has since developed, Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that seems like the template for the modern wave of blockbusters like Suicide Squad or even Kong: Skull Island. These are massive tentpole films that consciously wear their weirdness on their sleeve.

At the time, this seemed strange. Guardians of the Galaxy was a fringe property before the film was released, largely unknown to audiences outside of comics. The film does not even adapt the “classic” team line-up, relegating them to a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Instead, the team depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy was drawn from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s well-loved but under-appreciated twenty-first century run. More than that, the film was to be helmed by a director who had developed his trade working at Troma and whose career included oddities like Slither or Super. The star was a supporting actor on a well-liked-but-not-breakout sitcom. The biggest names were voicing a talking raccoon and “his personal houseplant-slash-muscle.”

As such, the film’s status as a breakout hit and cultural phenomenon seems strange. What is it about Guardians of the Galaxy that endures, that elevates it in the popular memory ahead of other superhero films (and other Marvel Studios films) like Captain America: The First Avenger or Ant Man or Doctor Strange? It’s in interesting question to contemplate, particularly when Guardians of the Galaxy comes with so much of the baggage of those middle Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rewatching the film in hindsight, there is a lot of clunky exposition and unnecessary detail, a host of elements that exist to set up other movies (like Avengers: Infinity War) rather than serving this individual film. This is the film that properly introduced Thanos and the Infinity Stones, after all.

It is perhaps to the credit of Guardians of the Galaxy that it works well enough in spite of the demands of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it is the rare Marvel Studios film that feels entirely sure of itself and its own identity. Despite all this continuity and all of these connections, Guardians of the Galaxy is structured by Gunn and credited co-writer Nicole Perlman as a very simple allegory beneath all the talk of “Celestials” and “the Nova Corps”, between trips to “Xandar” and “Morag.” At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy never loses sight of what it’s actually “about” beneath the trappings of comic book lore and the spectacle of a twenty-first century blockbuster. It is the story of a young boy who responds to a massive trauma by retreating into a world of fantasy.

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Non-Review Review: Annihilation

Annihilation is a science-fiction smorgasbord.

Early in the film, a group of scientists determine that the are of land which they have been sent to investigate has taken strange properties. Local plants and animals seem to have mutated and warped under the influence of some strange beings. Impossible hybrids stalk the landscape, exotic combinations of recognisable forms in order to create something uncanny and unsettling. In its own way, Annihilation feels self-aware.

The mouth of madness.

Alex Garland’s latest film is very much a hybrid itself, a synthesis of iconic science fiction elements, fused together to create something novel and exciting. Audience members will recognise a strand of DNA here, a stronger marker there. Even its harshest critic must concede that Annihilation has a broad palette; a dash of Stalker, a shade of Alien, a hint of Arrival, the slightest trace of Solaris, a nod towards The Thing, some 2001: A Space Odyssey for flavour. All these elements thrown together and mixed to create something eccentric and something intriguing.

Annihilation is a brainy high-energy imaginative science-fiction mixtape, and one both enticed and horrified by the idea that this is essentially the future culture.

“He was always throwing himself into his work.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Warhead (Review)

If Relativity featured a time bomb, then Warhead focuses on a smart bomb.

Star Trek: Voyager is a fascinating television show. It is a television show very firmly rooted in the listlessness of the nineties, reflecting cultural anxieties and uncertainties; these millennial anxieties reflected in stories like 11:59. At the same time, it is also structured as something more overtly nostalgic than the other Star Trek spin-offs, a conscious throwback to the retro science-fiction of the forties and the fifties; this sensibility reflected in the nuclear parables of Jetrel or The Omega Directive, the infiltrator narratives of Cathexis or In the Flesh.

“Yes, that is a rocket in that pocket of rock, and yes it is happy to see us.”

In many ways, Warhead represents a perfect fusion of these two approaches. Warhead is a story that is strongly anchored in uncertainties about the legacy of the Second World War, the tale of a sentient weapon of mass destruction with the capacity to cause untold destruction that exists beyond the capacity of human reason. Warhead is also a philosophical parable about identity and determinism, a discussion about what it means to have a sense of self and whether an individual’s reality is shaped by their design and their programming.

The result is a strange hybrid story that captures two of the competing facets of Voyager in a single forty-five minute episode.

Explosive drama.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Random Thoughts (Review)

Random Thoughts is another example of Star Trek: Voyager as generic issue-driven Star Trek.

Random Thoughts is a fairly standard political-commentary-as-science-fiction-allegory plot, with the crew encountering a race of telepaths who have built a utopian society through the careful regulation of thoughts. When Torres is implicated in a very rare violent crime, the crew find themselves embroiled within mystery to determine the origin of the violent thought and the means of its transmission. Along the way, there is a hefty dose of commentary on a broad range of themes.

Scrambling the subversives.

Scrambling the subversives.

In theory, Random Thoughts is very much of a piece with Nemesis or Scientific Method, other fourth season episodes less interested in character and more driven by commentary. However, Random Thoughts is a good deal more muddled. The allegory at the centre of the story is a mess, in part because the script is so intentionally vague. Are these violent thoughts a metaphor for violence in media? Are they a commentary on heat speech? Are they an analogy for drug addiction? What about non-heteronormative sexuality?

Random Thoughts never seems to decide on one central metaphor, and so casts an exceptionally broad net. The problem is that these issues are radically different from one another, and the all-encompassing nature of the central analogy robs the episode of any nuance or sophistication. An episode advocating for the legalisation of drug use is radically different from an episode against the criminalisation of heat speech. It is very difficult to work out exactly what Random Thoughts is saying, let alone what it wants to say.

Whisked away.

Whisked away.

This muddled storytelling plays out in other ways. Random Thoughts is a mess episode, in terms of storytelling and structure. The plot wanders in various different directions, shifting focus from one member of the ensemble to another; for a story about Torres’ emotions, Torres is afforded very little agency. The narrative also diverts along pointless tangents, with obvious filler scenes like Paris and Chakotay discussing a rescue that never happens or Seven of Nine stopping by the Ready Room to discuss the moral of the episode.

There is something distractingly unfocused about Random Thoughts.

Secure in his convictions.

Secure in his convictions.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Innocence (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the remarkable things about the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager is the way that they seem to hark back to the aesthetic of classic Star Trek.

There is a palpable goofiness to some of the ideas in the second season that feels very much in keeping with the mood and tone of the classic sixties series. There’s a surprising amount of high-concept science-fiction allegory running through the first two seasons of the show, with the writer playing with concepts not too far removed from the space!Romans of Bread and Circuses or the half-black half-white allegories of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. There are points where Voyager seems to drift away from literalism and wander into sci-fi wackiness.

Kids these days...

Kids these days…

There were elements of this to be found in the first season, with Caretaker awkwardly literalising the franchise’s wild west metaphor by having Janeway’s first planetfall occur on a desert world with a primitive aggressive population. The Kazon and the Vidiians seemed like they escaped from pulpy science-fiction serials, with the show even going so far as to present the Vidiians as body horror space nazis in episodes like Phage and Faces. This is to say nothing of the Cold War paranoia of Cathexis or the primary colour atomic anxiety of Time and Again.

However, this tendency really kicked into high gear during the second season, with the crews’ dreams conspiring to kill them in Persistence of Vision, Chakotay meeting his people’s space!gods (er… “sky spirits”) in Tattoo, Voyager embroiling itself in a “robotic war” in Prototype and Paris “evolving” into a salamander in Threshold. There was a sense that the show was embracing the sort of high-concept sci-fi weirdness that Star Trek: The Next Generation had spent so much of its run trying to avoid, and had only really embraced in its final years.

Bennet, we hardly knew ye.

Bennet, we hardly knew ye.

That is particularly apparent in this stretch of episodes towards the end of the second season. Innocence has a species that ages backwards, enjoying a simple allegory without getting too caught up in the internal logic of the situation. The Thaw is arguably a much greater visual tribute to the style and tone of the original Star Trek than Flashback could ever claim to be. Tuvix is a classic transporter accident story, reversing The Enemy Within. These pulpy elements of Voyager would never quite go away, but they would never be as pronounced as they were in the first two years.

Innocence is a weird and goofy little story that works best as a modern fairy tale. It is arguably proof that the Star Trek franchise probably works better as metaphorical allegory than straight-up science-fiction.

Eye see...

Eye see…

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Non-Review Review: Zootropolis (aka Zootopia)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Zootropolis is a solidly entertaining family film that strains under the weight of its core premise.

There is a great idea in here, a detective film set in an anthropomorphised world featuring a rabbit and fox who must team up to solve a number of mysterious disappearances. Along the way, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston fashion the story into an allegory rich with social commentary about race and class issues in American cities. It helps that the script is light on its feet and packed with enough fast gags that it breezes along without ever getting stuck in the same place for too long.

zootopia4

However, this becomes a problem in and of itself. There is a sense that Zootropolis struggles to do too much in the space afforded to it. The plot covers quite a lot of ground as our plucky heroes embark on their investigation, including extended (and overt) riffs on pop culture standards like The Godfather and Breaking Bad. There are points at which it feels like Zootropolis might be a much stronger film if it slowed down a bit, instead of hopping from one set-up to the next in the style of its rabbit protagonist.

Zootropolis largely works, but it never comes together in the way that the best Disney outings do. There are points at which Zootropolis feels more like a turducken than a chimera.

zootopia5

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The X-Files – Hungry (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Hungry is an underrated episode of The X-Files.

Although it was the third episode of the season to air, it was actually the first episode produced, allowing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to ease themselves back into the demanding shooting schedule. As with Vince Gilligan’s script for Unusual Suspects, the idea was to write an episode that required as little of Mulder and Scully as possible. However, rather than building Hungry around an established member (or members) of the supporting cast, Gilligan decides to introduce a new character and make them the focus of the episode.

"I am sharkboy, hear me roar..."

“I am sharkboy, hear me roar…”

Hungry is not quite as experimental as X-Cops, but there is something deliciously subversive about telling a “monster of the week” story from the perspective of the monster. Gilligan is arguably building upon the work done by David Amann in Terms of Endearment, but Hungry is very much its own story. It pushes Mulder and Scully to the very edge of the narrative in a way that distorts many of the underlying assumptions about what The X-Files is and how it is supposed to work.

Hungry is proof that The X-Files still has legitimately great stories in it, even if the seventh season has a decidedly funereal atmosphere.

Brains...

Brains…

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