Guardians of the Galaxy is poised to be the biggest movie of the year; last weekend 93% of ticket pre-sales at Fandango were for Marvel’s space epic. In a time when almost all big movies are prequels, sequels, reboots, or spin-offs, Guardians stands as a fresh, original and totally unlikely movie, one that doesn’t feel like it was written by committee, created in service to the special effects or licensed merchandise (though they are going to move a lot of it), or dissected and rewritten by focus groups prior to its release. In contrast to the bleak and monochrome CGI spectacles set in a world where it’s always 4:30 on a February afternoon in which heroes dressed in dreary grey and beige mope around like their dog just died between bouts of leveling their hometown in order to save it, this film looks even brighter and more fun than it actually is.

gotg-rocket-groot  All of us have a movie that we saw somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12 that instantly became our all-time favorite, the movie we love beyond reason and will watch whenever it shows up; for me it’s the original Planet of the Apes; every line of dialogue is burned into my brain, and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to draw those apes. We all have a film like that. I’m actually a little envious of the kids who will see Guardians of the Galaxy this week; I wish I could see it as a 10-year-old and have it mark me for life. It’s objectively a far better movie than most of the ones that people treasure, it hits that sweet spot where “this is good” and “I love this” intersect. Thirty years from now, those kids will be talking about Rocket Raccoon and Groot the way 40-year-old guys talk about Han Solo and Chewbacca today. For this generation, Guardians of the Galaxy is their Star Wars, and it’s exciting to see that fandom ignite in their eyes. When you take your kids to see it, be prepared to hear lines of dialog from it for quite some time to come.

With that in mind, here’s what you need to know:

1. What’s it about?
It’s a variation on the “building the team” story in which a group of unique individuals are drawn together despite their differences to face a common enemy, as seen in classics like The Great Escape, Seven Samurai, Ocean’s 11, and many more. It’s also a classic anti-hero picture in which some morally-ambiguous folks decide for once in their misbegotten lives to put aside their own desires and do the right thing because it needs to be done. As non-spoilery as we can be, here’s a very brief rundown of the situation.

Our heroes find themselves in prison.
Our heroes find themselves in prison.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a scavenger, outlaw, soldier-of-fortune and mercenary, abducted from Earth when he was nine and raised by a band of ne’er-do-wells known as Ravagers. He is hired to recover an artifact (“the orb”) from a long-dead planet, only to find that several very bad people all want it. He decides it may be worth double-crossing his employer and selling the orb to “the Collector” (last seen in the post-credit teaser for Thor 2: The Dark World, and played by Benicio Del Toro), only to find that there is now a price on his head. Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a mean green killing machine, is one of those who intends to take the orb. The adopted daughter of Thanos (last seen in the post-credits teaser of The Avengers) who has trained her to help carry out his goal of extinguishing all life in the universe, she has been loaned out to Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a religious zealot of the Kree empire; he sees Kree’s recent peace treaty with the people of Xandar as an act of blasphemy and intends to neutralize it by destroying Xandar and killing every last Xandarian. Meanwhile, a pair of thief-mercenary-bounty hunters named Rocket (a genetically-modified and cybernetically-enhanced raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a sentient tree, played by Vin Diesel) are trying to collect the reward for capturing Quill. Eventually, Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot all realize that their best chance of staying alive and keeping the orb out of the hands of genocidal psychopaths is to band together; along the way, they pick up Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a homicidal maniac bent on revenge against Ronan for the death of his family.

The mockingly-nicknamed Guardians have to face down not only Ronan, but also Yondu (Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned redneck who abducted Quill from Earth; he’s also the one who sent Quill to retrieve the orb, and the one who offered the reward that attracted Rocket and Groot. Gamora’s adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), a cyborg, is loyally assisting Ronan in his campaign to destroy Xandar, the home of the galactic police force known as the Nova Corps, headed by Nova Prime (Glenn Close), who also appears to serve as the planet’s governmental leader. Nova Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) takes a particular interest in the so-called Guardians.

All of this sounds byzantine and confusing in text, but director James Gunn presents the action clearly and with style, making it surprisingly easy to follow the plot.

A raccoon and his big honkin' gun.
A raccoon and his big honkin’ gun.

2. Will I like it?
Almost certainly. Guardians of the Galaxy is a rarity in film, a science-fiction action-comedy that’s not a parody and doesn’t wink at the audience. The comedy is derived from the characters’ response to the very serious situations in which they find themselves, much the way the comedy in Star Wars is rooted in the characters’ personalities. It’s an action-packed thrill ride, but one with heart and characters you really care about.

3. Will my kids like it?
Let’s put it this way: There’s a very good chance your kid is going to want to be a Guardians of the Galaxy character for Halloween come October. Prepare to see raccoons at every comic convention for the next few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if raccoons become a popular art and design element for a while.

4. It’s rated PG-13; is it okay for young kids?
As always, you know your kids better than we do. The rating is for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language,” which is pretty accurate. There’s no blood or gore, but aliens are dispatched by the busload in some fairly brutal ways. For very young kids (let’s say under 6, particularly very sensitive ones), there’s some nightmare-fodder in there. Kids 8+ are going to eat it up.

The language is pretty mild; a couple uses of “a-hole”, “dick” and the s-word. There is no sexual or salacious content, not even any lingering shots of Gamora languidly stretching the way Megan Fox is prone to do in the Transformers movies. It’s just wall-to-wall action that may be a bit intense for very young viewers.

"Knowhere": the lawless world where the Collector lives.
“Knowhere”: the lawless world where the Collector lives.

5. When’s the best time for a bathroom break?
Right after the crew breaks out of prison, when they are on their way to “Knowhere,” the home of the Collector; there’s some business there with the guys gambling, drinking, getting in fights and so on, but most of it isn’t particularly relevant to the bigger story. But hurry back. You want to be there when the Collector calls for them.

6. Do I need to know anything going in?
Nope. There’s no “what came before” to worry about. If you saw the post-credit teasers for Avengers and Thor 2, you’re pretty much up to speed. The movie is almost entirely self-contained; there are oblique passing references to the Tesseract (from Captain America and the Avengers) and the Aether (from Thor 2), but neither of them is particularly significant unless you’re obsessively following the world-building of the connected Marvel franchises. All of the major characters here are new to the screen; the movie is based on a comic of the same title that has periodically reappeared with varying cast members since about 1969; this cast originates around 2008 in a series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, but most of the characters have been changed somewhat from their comic book versions.

7. Do I need to see it in 3-D?
Probably not. Truthfully, I barely noticed the 3D, except in the two obligatory “Michael Bay trademark slow-motion run from an explosion” scenes.

8. What about IMAX?
If you’re going to spring for 3D, you might as well go all the way and pony up for IMAX; the big battle scenes will be spectacular in that format. The fact is, though, that the emotional life of the movie is so much more important that the film would work on a 12″ black-and-white TV. It’s just a solid movie.

9. Is there a scene after the end credits?
According to rumor, there is. There wasn’t one for the press screenings, but the studio has been known to hold back the teasers in advance screenings to try and limit spoilers. I will say that there is a credit line listed in the official press kit, which didn’t appear in the credits of the screening I saw, and if it relates to the teaser, it’s fantastic and the culmination of years of wishing on my part. It says everything you need to know about Marvel’s management and approach to their vast catalog, and I’m taking it as a vindication of the opinion I expressed when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2011. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

10. What about the soundtrack? “Hooked on a Feeling”? Really?
Really. The entire soundtrack is made up of iconic pop-rock hits of the ’70s and early ’80s. Most of the songs are actually written into the script, the music coming from sources within the scene, usually the Walkman that Quill had with him when he was abducted. It works perfectly within the film, and the songs chosen are all spot-on choices for the scenes in which they appear. “Awesome Mix: Vol. 1” is being released as a CD; the studio gave me a copy at the press event, and it’s been on constant rotation in my car ever since. It’s a perfect soundtrack, and I fully expect to see “Come and Get Your Love” and “Hooked On a Feeling” back in the Top 40 within a few weeks.

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