Director James Gunn showed great promise with Slither eight years ago, but nothing prepares you for how sure-handed this film feels. Even before images appear, we hear the impeccable strains of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” as a troubled boy sitting in a hospital is about to be drawn into a room where his head-shaved mother is surrounded by teary-eyed relatives. When the scene ends, however, the appearance of massive extraterrestrial intervention not only swallows up the sad song, wounded boy, and us but also lavishly sets the table for what’s to come — an almost ridiculous serving of unexpected thrills.
The young boy turns into one Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a galactic picker who has combed dead worlds for decades until his involvement retrieving a MacGuffin orb runs him into the sidekicks of an evil, hooded obsessive named Ronan the Accuser. Meanwhile, Quill accidentally accumulates a ragtag gang of wisecracking sidekicks that includes a lissome green assassin (Zoe Saldana), a talking raccoon tech genius (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a walking plant named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who is as full of surprises as the film. Mostly, it’s a parade of outer-space spectacles, but the story also includes nonstop action and jokes that transplant American pop culture (Kevin Bacon as mythological hero) into deep space. Yet the movie’s great pleasures come from character revelations. Pratt plays a wise guy with a large soft spot, the snarky raccoon is literally marked by his cruel past, and Groot the big tree is clearly destined for cult fame. The phrase “I am Groot” will one day vie with such cliché formulations as “May the Force be with you.”
Comparisons with Star Wars seem inevitable. Lucas’s universe was more obviously beholden to movie serials and Jung; this one rides on the blankets of it and all the space westerns, with Han Solo breeziness and hints of a lost father from some angelic realm. What’s different is the connection to pop culture Earth — Quill’s in-jokes and his Walkman obsession rule the soundtrack and the plot. This film has rayguns and Groot, but it also has Blue Swede singing “Hooked on a Feeling.”