Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a surprisingly heartfelt and character-driven sci-fi adventure that pushes the boundaries of visual effects

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It still seems difficult to believe that a space adventure film where 90% of the main characters consist of weird aliens is one of the most successful and wildly entertaining franchises to come out in the last few years. Undoubtedly emboldened by the audience’s acceptance of the previous film, writer and director James Gunn takes these strange alien characters into an even more fantastical adventure that pushes the limits and potential of the world that it takes place in.

It’s easy to heap praise on the incredible visuals that the film provides. From the detailed production design, elaborate make-up and costumes, colorful cinematography, and awe-inspiring visual effects, the bigger and bolder sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy looks like an exhilarating exercise in creativity and imagination. Director James Gunn and his creative team fully embrace the strangeness of the film’s universe to provide us a world that is suitably alien and spectacular. It feels like every shot has been designed for maximum visual impact with its bold use of bright colors and otherworldly design.

But even more impressive than the film’s seemingly endless number of technical achievements is how it further develops its numerous characters. Sequels tend to have more freedom in terms of creating elaborate storylines because it’s no longer burdened by introducing and establishing its characters. Since most of the legwork and development has already been done in the previous film, a sequel can take off almost immediately since audiences should already be familiar with the major players. But in this case, James Gunn does almost the exact opposite by focusing even more on its characters and developing them further instead of telling a more intricate plot.

It does this so well that you begin to have doubts with regards to the quality of the film’s plot, but the complex character development serves another purpose: to distract us with what’s been happening in the background. Amidst Peter Quill’s reunion with his father, Gamora and Nebula’s conflict coming to a head, Rocket Raccoon’s persistence in alienating himself with the group, and Yondu’s thief-with-a-heart-of-gold routine, the film’s plot has actually been slowly but surely building up to the inevitable climax while we’re too busy focusing on the characters’ respective evolutions.

While it should come as no surprise that Peter Quill’s father is actually a villain with ulterior motives, the film manages to lull us into a false sense of comfort right before his ultimate plan is revealed. Again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ego is the film’s bad guy, but it takes us off guard anyway because we’re seeing him through Peter’s starstruck eyes. At no point do we see Ego by himself in the first half of the film, cackling in a hidden corner to himself as his evil plan comes to fruition while our heroes stand by unawares. On the contrary, Peter is with him every time we see Ego onscreen (save for the first scene), so we’re left wondering all throughout as to what his plans and motivations are, which is revealed to the characters and the audience at the same time. This has the exciting effect of kick-starting the film’s grand climax, which manages to surprise with its far-reaching scope.

Understanding that the success of the franchise is rooted in the characters is what makes this corner of the Marvel universe feel so special. The wonderful dynamic of these wildly different characters being united by a sense purpose when they’re among each other is executed so well that they manage to feel relatable despite their strange appearances. Most important is that they provide meaning to all the spectacle that the film has to offer. All the wonders of CGI aren’t as important if the characters and story fall flat.

Breathtaking action scenes and fully realized characters combine for one of the most entertaining and memorable blockbusters in recent memory. Although it doesn’t quite reach the same refreshing highs that the first film offered, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is nonetheless a worthy sequel to one of the biggest surprises to come out in the comic book and sci-fi adventure genre. What was once considered to be a risky inclusion in the Marvel cinematic universe continues to cement itself as one of the best in an oversaturated genre. When the end credits once again proudly and confidently state that the Guardians of the Galaxy will return, it’s a promise that manages to bring joy and excitement with what future installments will offer.

8/10

In spite of its original concept and sci-fi setting, Passengers manages to be both forgettable and unremarkable

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Set in a malfunctioning spaceship headed to a new planet, Passengers tells the story of Jim Preston, who wakes up from his hibernation all alone and ninety years too early. After spending a year with nothing but a robotic bartender as his companion, he gets smitten by one of the passengers and decides to wake her up from hibernation.

Passengers combines sci-fi, action, and romance, and it actually does a good job of drawing you into its story in the beginning. The first 10-15 minutes of the film comprises solely of Jim Preston all alone in the ship, trying to get back into hibernation or call for help. Before we know it, an entire year has passed and Jim is just about ready to kill himself until he falls in love with a sleeping Aurora. It’s a good start to the film, but after Aurora wakes up the film slowly but surely goes down in quality.

The main problem is that the entire romantic relationship between Jim and Aurora is a ticking time bomb. Because the film has no other characters except the two, we really only follow them throughout the duration of the film. There are no other elements in the entire movie that can distract us from the predictable outcome of Aurora finding out that Jim deliberately woke her up because of his isolation. Instead of being involved and wondering what happens next, the audience is merely waiting for Aurora’s inevitable discovery. Once she finds out, their relationship falls apart and the film gives you no reason to continue caring about what happens next.

Despite knowing their backgrounds and ambitions, Jim and Aurora are ultimately flat, boring characters. You’d think that a film that runs for almost two hours long would be able to develop a whopping two characters, but it doesn’t. For whatever reason the film completely fails to make us care about either of them because there’s just nothing interesting about them at all. Both characters are incredibly one dimensional and it becomes obvious that the only reason they start a romantic relationship is because the script told them to. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film explores what isolation can do to two people who have no one else but each other, but it doesn’t. Throughout the movie they go on romantic dinners, play games, swim in a pool, and bask in a technological marvel of a spaceship that has everything they could ever need (save for other people). All told, they’re living incredibly rich lives and it feels like the film is so afraid of being remotely introspective because it glosses over the fact that their experiences are ultimately hollow.

Eventually a crew member wakes up as more and more of the ship slowly falls apart. Laurence Fishburne’s appearance sparks a moment of life into the film because it introduces a new element into the film. Unfortunately his character exists solely to progress the plot and nothing more. He gains access to the controls of the ship and figures out what’s been causing all the problems, along with the fact that he’s also dying due to a malfunction from his hibernation. Not ten minutes since he first appeared in the movie to deliver exposition, Laurence Fishburne dies and now it’s up to Jim and Aurora to fix the ship themselves.

The movie then devolves into a generic action adventure wherein Jim almost dies while saving the day and Aurora forgives him like a victim who’s suffering from Stockholm syndrome. After finding a medical pod that can imitate the effects of hibernation, Jim offers it to Aurora which she refuses, opting instead to live out the rest of her life in the ship with Jim.

Ultimately Passengers is a film that looks and sounds good on the surface, but nothing more. When you look at the genres it covers, you’ll see that it doesn’t actually achieve its goals at the end of the day. The sci-fi aspect is mere window dressing to a story that isn’t all that compelling; the romance is unconvincing at best and disturbing at worst due to Jim’s horrible act in the beginning; and the action is neither exciting nor captivating. It’s a film that is more than satisfied with remaining mediocre until the very end instead of exploring its story and characters in-depth. Passengers is sci-fi at its most generic and at its most shallow, choosing to distract its audience with shiny CGI instead of fulfilling the promise of its unique story.

4/10