“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” Movie Review

Preface

Set and setting are important to take into consideration as you read my perspective through to the end. I’ve attempted to infuse my opinion of “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” as a standalone film into the foundation of my objective critique of it as a technical project for Director James Gunn.

Gunn made his name with the landmark success of 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” an off-shoot Marvel project now infamous for a script that was brimming with personality, not to mention special effects practically beyond compare. He’s openly stated that production values and cinematic spectacle are his two, most-valued elements of a proper film. In “Vol. 2,” I think he’s more than outdone himself, managing to overshadow the original in nearly all criteria.

Before getting into the thick of it, I’ll state outright that I found the movie itself to surpass all expectations in ranks of pure entertainment, and more importantly, to set a new benchmark for cinema presentation and the movie-going experience. Now, I’ll admit, that’s a fairly grandiose claim. In the excerpts below, I hope you’ll find my reasoning worthy of establishing that sentiment as a realistic critique.

Before reading on, be sure to consider my particular means of consuming the movie: dead-center seating at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, presenting the movie in 3D Imax Laser (4K HDR).


The Movie, Itself

It could be argued that Gunn has merely returned to dip into the Guardian’s well for a second helping. Examined superficially, the movie leaves little reason to deny that this is a continuation, if not merely an extension, of the 2014 original. The return of the original cast and their immediate hijinks signals nostalgia before even the opening scene comes to an end.

If the above serves as loose criticism, it’s about all you’ll get from me in this section! Outside of downright familiarity, I think the Guardians formula fired in all the right ways and on all cylinders in “Vol. 2.” Comfortable in their roles, the central cast positively knock it out of the park. Focus was shifted away from Chris Pratt’s on-screen time as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, allowing for the development of Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and even Baby Groot. Voice acting for the latter two was impeccable, and paired with unrivaled facial/body animation, the end result for both central CG characters was an instant connection for the viewing audience. Our theater literally burst out audibly in scenes featuring no real actors to mention.

From start to finish, “Vol. 2” amounts to swiftly paced, yet controlled, mayhem. It’s a derby of special effects, hilarious one-liners, and CG environments that’ll make your jaw drop. The cost of a movie ticket is, in my humble opinion, returned several times over.

Between the second and third acts, Gunn’s screenplay approaches the climax of the film by neatly tidying up all of the chaos that ensued from the onset of the film. The story pays proper homage to the rest of the MCU, and even serves to further establish the foundation for future MCU projects. When cameos are made, they’re not done pointlessly, serving instead to amuse the audience here and there.

“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” is a resolutely thoughtful project, both in terms of its production and its unrelenting desire to take the audience on a engrossing, wild ride.

Two personal notes:

1. Baby Groot was impossibly adorable. I’d even argue that he was the star of the show. They infused him with so much personality and nuance this time around that his character handily overshadowed the original iteration. Where the token cute character can sometimes become a movie’s pitfall, Baby Groot served to add warmth and embrace to the otherwise visceral nature of “Vol. 2.”

2. The opening scene of the movie makes my all-time, top-5 list of opening scenes. The pacing, cinematography and special effects were so on point that I can’t imagine anyone debating me on that matter.


Production Values and Special Effects

Only one name merits attention in this section: WETA.

Do you know film? If so, you shouldn’t need me to go on. But in case you don’t…

WETA is the consummate visual FX production house in the world of Hollywood cinema. Famed for dozens of iconic projects — spanning Avatar, The Jungle Book, Lord of the Rings, and more — WETA partnered with Gunn to create one of the most astonishing visual spectacles I’ve ever seen.

From the richly detailed color palette of Ego’s Planet to the fast-twitch space battles between worlds, “Vol. 2” is jam-packed with computer-generated effects that never ever approach the Uncanny Valley.

In an interview with Empire, Gunn spoke to the incredible attention to detail the WETA team summoned in the creation of Ego’s Planet:

“We have over a trillion polygons on Ego’s planet. It’s the biggest visual effect of all time. There’s nothing even close to it. Which is cool.”

Given that much of the runtime is either entirely CG or filmed in front of a green screen, it’s important to note how much of a tour de force, visual powerhouse the final product truly is. On the smallest scale, Baby Groot is meticulously detailed, appearing as lifelike as imaginable — on the opposite end of the spectrum, space battles between worlds are so vibrantly detailed and fluidly animated that your eyes can barely keep up.

In particular, two (spoiler-free) segments are worthy of being considered unforgettable:

  1. In the climactic final battle, colors are eschewed momentarily as the screen fills with the stark contrast of radiating white and rich blacks. I venture to guess that Gunn crafted this scene intentionally, serving as the absolute benchmark for HDR presentation in either IMAX Laser or Dolby Cinema.
  2. In the films concluding scene, a dazzling, unprecedented array of colors fills the frame for several minutes. Given their depth and complexity, yet again, I would argue that this choice was an intentional demonstration of the visceral power of the expanded color range of these state-of-the-art projection systems.

Special Focus: 3D

Often polarizing to a fault, 3D presentations tend to divide movie-goers into one of two distinct camps: those who find entertainment value in its overall effect, and those who feel it either detracts from the project or, worse yet, causes the viewer to feel distracted from the events portrayed onscreen.

I’m happy to confirm that “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” represents a rare archetype not seen since Avatar: sublime, nearly fault-free, 3D presentation for the duration of the movie. 3D’s notorious eye fatigue never sets in, and with the exception of a single, dizzying scene in which the image spiraled from a top-down view, I was never compelled the look away.

Though it was filmed in 2D, Gunn publicly stated that the film was captured with 3D post-production and IMAX DMR conversion in mind from the start:

“Unlike many other films today where screen size shifts and 3D are afterthoughts, we plan our aspect ratios during the script stage, and every single shot is tailored for 3D as we shoot it”

What was the end result of his efforts?

Not since Avatar have I seen this level of Beyond the Window 3D effect. On Ego’s Planet, three-stage and even four-stage overlapping can be seen, offsetting the actors in the foreground from dense layers of landscape behind them. When a space battle would commence, the sheer scale of the nearly 100' IMAX screen resulted in equally dense layers of space craft and their requisite pieces in the moments after explosions.

Most distinctly, though, I want to call out and champion three scenes that were quite muted and impaired for viewers who chose the non-ideal (read: 2D) path:

  1. On Ego’s planet, the central cast interacts with aspects of the environment. In one scene on the planet, I would argue it was filmed exclusively with 3D in mind. Drax reaches up to touch a sphere, resulting in it bursting out of the frame in one of the film’s “Frame Break” 3D moments. The effect was jaw-dropping.
  2. In a critical fight scene, Yondu’s arrow hurtles toward the screen and breaches it in a Before the Window 3D effect not seen since Avatar’s foliage pouring out and nearly touching audiences. The tip of the arrow begins to peer through the screen and doesn’t stop until it’s practically all the way through.
  3. In the finale, a colorful burst of particles in space floats weightless from background, to midground, foreground, and then eventually to the very edges of the theater. The effect is dazzling and positively mystifying.

If you have any apprehensions, let them take a back seat — the 3D production of “Vol. 2” has been celebrated across the internet. Let me state openly that Gunn’s plan to film with 3D in mind and then post-produce was a success.

The final result adds depth and dimension to a film already overflowing with both qualities. See it the way the director intended to see it as it’s meant to be seen.

Noteworthy Observation:

One of the less pleasant effects of 3D glasses — aside from having to wear them, in the first place — is their tendency to cut the brightness of the image in half. Thankfully, the unprecedented contrast ratios of IMAX Laser/Dolby Cinema easily overcome this issue by producing an image that’s astonishingly bright and vibrant.


Sound Design and Musical Score

Arguably the most signature piece of the original Guardian’s manifesto, musical score is, yet again, on point. Each and every track was chosen with tender love and care. For the action scenes that demanded score from scratch, Tyler Bates (of 300 fame) delivers in spades.

In regard to sound design, it’s almost impossible to do it justice with mere words. Whether IMAX’s absurd 12-channel sound system or Dolby Atmos, the environmental sound design is so engrossing that it boggles the mind.

In particular, a climactic scene featuring Yondu’s powerful arrow represents my new benchmark for movie theater sound presentation. As the arrow whizzed around the on-screen environment, one could pick out its location aurally with cues serving to point out when the arrow flew from the front of the scene to the rear, and then even above.

As I’ll detail below, seeing the movie in a “standard presentation” is an afront to the creative spirit that birthed it into being. In the company of a proper 12-channel IMAX sound system, let alone unrivaled object-based Dolby Atmos engine, “Vol. 2” comes to life. Vocal tracks are front-and-center, accompanied by booming LFE during all action scenes, and supported by luscious environmental sounds. The whirring and whizzing of ships engines, not to mention the crisp sounds of organic vegetation on various alien words, come to life via little more than Gunn’s brilliantly nuanced soundscape.


The Technical Presentation

IMAX® Presents: Director James Gunn on Expanded Aspect Ratio

With a few variations mixed in here-and-there, most “Top Critics” summarized their reviews as follows: “Director James Gunn took the already established formula of the original, mixed in a few new tricks, and reminded audiences that it’s worth experiencing Guardians once more.”

While I concur with the central premise, I feel that it’s missed Gunn’s point entirely. There is only one, true way to experience the movie: full-scale IMAX 3D (ideally IMAX Laser), with a complementary sound system. Anything less amounts to an albeit entertaining cinema experience, but a pale comparison to the director’s intended product.

When asked how aspect ratios impact the movie-watching experience, Director James Gunn had the following to say:

“I think IMAX is just a completely immersive viewing experience. I think that there is a real value to going to see a movie in a cinema surrounded by other people, but to do that it’s got to be within a theater where it really is worth it to go see it. Some of the movie is in to 2:40:1 aspect ratio which is a thinner aspect ratio and then we open up to a much fuller aspect ratio and we kind of go back and forth throughout the movie between these two aspect ratios. It creates a pretty fun feeling in the viewer to go from smaller to bigger depending on what the scene calls. You have the slow kind of quiet parts then you have the big loud parts and then it gets slow and quiet again and I think this translates perfectly to an IMAX aspect ratio shifting experience. We have elements where it breaks the screen, which we did it once or twice in the first movie. We did a few more times in this movie. You need to go see a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in a place like an IMAX theater where you can experience something completely different than you can at home because you’re going to get the biggest experience.”
IMAX 1:90:1 Aspect Ratio results in an extra 26% of the frame shown on-screen for nearly every noteworthy action scene in “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”

What might initially seem either trivial or relevant only to the most obnoxious of elites, actually amounts to the most significant impact on a viewer’s experience with the film.

Wouldn’t it be outlandish to think that over a quarter of every bombastic action scene were chopped off at the head and toes? Well, that’s quite literally what viewers at a standard 2:40:1 cineplex are experiencing. In expanding the canvas vertically to a 1:9:1 aspect ratio, the team behind “Vol. 2” afford audiences an awe-inspiring field of view, courtesy of the 90+ foot screens you can find at IMAX Laser/Dolby Cinema theaters.

High-dynamic range, 4K resolution, greater aspect ratio — pair those technical attributes with the creative minds behind this movie and you wind up with one of the most visually gripping spectacles in cinema history.

You can only ever experience the first viewing of any movie one time. For a film this entertaining, this finely produced and this blatantly intended for cutting-edge projection, do it once and do it right. You’ll thank yourself when the credits roll.


Sacrificing Originality for Refinement

The original “Guardians of the Galaxy” amounted to far more than an ordinary movie. In taking Marvel’s ragtag crew of semi-heroes from comics to the silver screen, James Gunn built a now-beloved rollercoaster in Marvel’s theme park. Instead of tearing it down for the sequel, he opted to take a more deliberate approach — he examined the scaffolding, paid care and attention where need be, and then built it higher and higher for added thrill.

“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” is nothing short of sensational, when viewed properly as the sum of its parts. Where the original may have served as an inventive twist on an otherwise tired genre, this sequel builds rich layers onto the framework. Gunn paints with a magnificent brush, synthesizing surreal VFX techniques with grandiose sound design. Visual and auditory experience aside, “Vol. 2” cranks the entertainment factor considerably past 10 — the central cast is never self-serious, delivering each line in such a manner as to either elicit laughter or awe.

By having Chris Pratt proverbially step to the side, the film ensures that the rest of the crew has enough time under the spotlight to really shine. Pratt takes it in stride, delivering his signature character with a bit more refinement than the first go-around. Where a gap may have assisted, all noteworthy characters fill it with ease.

If you can forgive the director’s conscious decision to continue the ride where the original left off, you’ll quickly realize that he’s built a rip-roaring rollercoaster. The adventure is even more riveting this time around, so from start to finish, you’ll be happy you strapped yourself in.