‘Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2’ Is The Redemption Of CGI

Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 was famously reported to have five post-credits scenes, which isn’t quite true. It actually has five mid-credits scenes, which I think we can all agree is too many, but more importantly should give you some idea of just how many people had to work together in order to create this film. We’ve all become used to the idea of movies like this costing the GDP of a small country (no hard numbers on this one yet, but the first cost $170 million not including marketing), but seeing one like Guardians cost so much and also work so well, followed by the names of more crew than the entire population of my hometown — well, it’s enough to make you believe in a utopian society.

There’s nothing we critics find ourselves writing about more often than million-dollar effects that look like trash, collaborations gone wrong, too many cooks in the kitchen, focus-grouped plots, jokes by committee, etc, etc. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is that rare work that suggests that maybe more brains really are better. That’s why the joy of Guardians 2 turning out decent goes beyond the usual feeling of seeing a good movie. A movie with a crew of thousands, a budget of millions, and an audience of billions isn’t just a good movie, it’s also a testament to human ingenuity, an expression of shared desires. It’s less art than an alienation assuagement device. I go through most days thinking other people are loud-chewing sacks of turds who should leave me alone, so an expression of a shared, non-turd-filled humanity is a rare and wondrous thing.

Guardians 2 has its issues, sure, like being 20 minutes too long at the end, a little overstuffed, and hingeing on a finale MacGuffin only slightly less played out than destroying a portal, all of which is more or less to be expected. One of the mid-credits sequences also involves Stan Lee, as if he’s starved for recognition. (I tend to despise the requisite Stan Lee cameo in these movies, though I will say it fits much better with Guardians‘ woolly, self-aware tone than it does in any other movies.) It’s also, from the first minute on, visually brilliant, with just enough conceptual justification. The macro plot, about Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finding his father (Ego, played by Kurt Russell) is just so-so (he’s got a thing and he wants to destroy a thing and blah blah blah!), but it hardly matters because the comedy works shockingly well, and the visuals consistently impress. I saw it in IMAX 3-D, and not only is it one of the few times 3-D, which I normally hate, felt like added value, it might be the first “live-action” movie I’ve ever seen where I was so conscious that virtually everything I was watching was a computer effect and didn’t mind.

It’s not that CG was ever bad. CG is just a tool. But audiences got accustomed to seeing CGI misused, by directors and producers who didn’t seem to understand its limitations or have a clear idea why they were using it, other than “make it look expensive!”

For much of the past 10 or 15 years, the bulk of noticeable CGI work seemed to consist of “blow up a big thing,” as if the key to making an “epic” movie was simply a matter of scale. For one thing, it isn’t, and in fact increasing the casualty count cuts directly against the entire idea of “human interest,” where it’s much easier for us to care about one or two people in peril than it is to care about a hundred or a thousand — something yellow journalists have known for a hundred years. For another, how many times can an action movie destroy the Bay Bridge or the Eiffel Tower, or a superhero movie blow up the universe or the fabric of reality, before it eventually becomes a droning sound?

Maybe it helps that James Gunn cut his teeth making Troma films and indie movies rather than shiny commercials — a world where you utilize the lowest-cost tools to accomplish a clear visual or narrative objective, rather than using a budget to create a generic sheen of high production values. But given a budget 10 times higher than he ever had before on the Guardians movies, he almost never uses it to create generic production value or scale. In Guardians 2‘s first big set piece, the gang is trying to protect some expensive space batteries from a big nasty space worm thingy or whatever. While the opening credits roll, Gunn shoots the entire thing from the perspective of Baby Groot, while Groot dances along to Awesome Mix Part 2, oblivious to the giant battle going on behind him.

Dancin’ Groot is a little gimmicky, sure. (I ended up enjoying it in spite of myself.) But visually, it’s a great example of Gunn doing the exact opposite of what a lot of blockbuster directors do with scale. He makes you feel it by cutting it down to size (and with a heavy dose of humor). Another one of Guardians‘ opening shots is a massive, sun-drenched vista, with Peter Quill’s parents driving through the Missouri landscape circa 1980. That’s another rare quality that Guardians 2 has: It’s bright and sepia toned, like a visual tube amp with fuzz pedal. The whole thing has this scruffy, earthy, dust-covered feel to it, which paradoxically only makes it feel more expensive. (You know how buttery-looking shoes always look more expensive than shiny ones?) It also fits the “ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells” theme perfectly, and the muscle-car-blaring-an-8-track soundtrack. It looks neither dingy, like BvS or some of Civil War‘s fight sequences, nor overlit and sitcommy, like Joss Whedon sometimes does. It’s just vivid, bright and blown out in the most naturalistic way.

If the visuals are the main event, the humor helps move things along. Chris Pratt exudes the same golden retriever quality he always does, but Dave Bautista almost steals the entire movie. He plays Drax as this Spock meets Dr. Hibbert from the Simpsons mix of awkwardness and nervous laughter, but with periwinkle contacts and giant muscles. Suffice it to say, it works. It really, really works. Barring the possibility that Bautista and Drax is just some cosmically perfect combination of persona and role, I’m just about ready to declare him our finest wrestler-turned-actor (and I still love The Rock).

Maybe it helps that Guardians doesn’t tie so neatly into The Avengers and the larger Marvel universe, that it feels less constrained than a lot of their other properties. Also, there aren’t any dull government functionaries or black SUVs or Cobie Smulders. It’s allowed to be sort of weird. It feels like a lark. The people behind the big comic book franchises are all convinced that what audiences want is continuity, familiarity, with expensive-looking visuals taken for granted. Guardians 2 retains plenty of the vestigial narrative elements of the modern superhero movie, but the important thing is that the ratio is flipped. In Guardians, visual brilliance is the main course. More of this, please.