The Safest Place There Is: Revisiting Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’

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The safest place there is. . . .

It’s a dubious, quizzical line, delivered by Lois Smith near the end of her one unforgettable scene as the self-proclaimed mother of Precrime. Dubious because we’re talking about the reliability of the human mind; quizzical because it’s a Philip K. Dick adaptation. But it’s a line, I’d argue, which perfectly describes the experience of revisiting one’s most treasured big-screen story, especially in Blu-ray high definition.

Forgive my sentimentality, but it always feels a bit like coming home.

Let’s talk a bit about my all-time, personal favorite film: Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). When I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I got my hands on the home DVD release of the second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones—and I became obsessed utterly with the notion that I might have a future as a storyteller. Lucas’s six-film epic has throughout my life, again and again, shown me the beauty of grand, mythic worlds and the heroic beings who populate them.

Spielberg’s Minority Report hit me unexpectedly a few months later. I’d missed the film’s theatrical run, having wanted to see it but having neither a car nor driver’s license to get me there. So I used what money I could scrounge together, from mowing lawns and so forth, to buy the DVD.

Which suited me perfectly, since I belong to that rare breed of cinephile who is often content to watch and rewatch the same ten-odd films over and over, studying my favorites in hopes of gleaning some unseen meaning I’d missed earlier—finding new cinematic moments to admire, or new, unanswered questions to ponder. The newfound convenience of the disc format allowed me to rewind more easily and better examine the story, and that led me to pen my first-ever review, which appeared in my middle school’s student newspaper. I’d love to track down a copy.

Minority Report is one of those movies you can’t help but be impressed by the first time you see it. And, as evidenced by the live-tweeting I did during my most recent viewing of the picture on Blu-ray, it holds up to the test of time like few science-fiction action flicks are capable of.

Its ideas feel fresh despite the age of its Philip K. Dick-penned source material (“The Minority Report,” first published in Fantastic Universe, 1956); the fictional technology presented throughout the film, with the single obvious exception of psychic phenomena, feels wholly real in a near-future context; and the philosophical concerns at the heart of its script are so vital and complex as to be truly timeless.

The film fits Tom Cruise like a tailored suit, in no small part due to the tightness of the script and its Dickian, awe-inspiring implications for the future of law enforcement. In Chief John Anderton we find a haunted man driven constantly by his tragic past even as the legal system he serves propels him toward a single confrontation, with a man he’s never met.

Am I getting ahead of myself? That’s always the problem with precognition; with focusing too much on the future, rather than the present.

The metaphysical, very Dickian hypothetical at the story’s center is that of the Precrime experiment, in which three brain-damaged oracles, born of the underground drug culture, suffer from nightmarish dreams of the future related to murder. Using these Precogs and their capability to predict future murders, law enforcement officers hunt and capture homicide perpetrators before the crime can take place, often—in trademark Spielberg style—with just seconds to spare.

So naturally the District of Columbia Precrime Division’s Police Chief, John Anderton (Cruise), is eventually declared the perp of a “brown-ball” (premeditated) crime, and forced to investigate the possibility that the “perfect system” he has fought for so passionately is, ultimately, fallible.

“But there’s a flaw,” Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) tells him. “It’s human. It always is.”

And the highly kinetic, emotional ride Spielberg takes us on from that point forward is invariably fun, horrifying, and at turns profound in its scrutiny of guilt and innocence as distinct polarities, teasing out the problems of predetermination in a quantum universe with infinite possible outcomes—but only one we can actually observe for ourselves.

Granted, the film is not without its own share of flaws.

Spielberg and his casting director seem to have missed the irony of the title completely, since they give screen time to only two or three minorities, by my count—only one of whom can even be called a “supporting role,” at best, which is something of a stretch.

And let’s not fail to mention the sleek, mechanical spyders, invasive and utterly without the discretion needed for such technology to function in a believable near-future setting. As I mentioned during my live-tweeting of the film, they owe a great debt to The Matrix, and are made quaint by the likelihood that surveillance technology in 2054 will likely rely on lifelike insectoid drones, or flying bird cams.

When the Orwellian eyes of the not-too-distant future begin to hunt, it’s likely their criminal prey won’t even notice them.

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Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in OmniSparkDigital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. His reviews and criticism have also been published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Bookgasm, and SF Signal. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.

‘Like Tears in Rain’ Out Now on Kindle

Like Tears in Rain: Meditations on Science Fiction Cinema

Like Tears in Rain • Image Credit: Tom Edwards

Like Tears in Rain: Meditations on Science Fiction Cinema

Published August 21, 2014 — approx. 35,000 words — 1st Digital Ed., Kindle KDP Select

Kindle Purchase Price: $2.99

Amazon.com Book Description:

Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. His reviews and criticism have also been published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Bookgasm, and SF Signal. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.

The essays that follow were written out of a love for science fiction in all its forms: on film, in fiction, in video games, in comics. They were written neither for money nor as a means of declaring myself some kind of self-appointed expert on the genre. Many of them appeared for the first time in Amazing Stories, the world’s very first science fiction magazine, while others are original to this volume—but each and every one of them has been revised and expanded for the sake of remaining timely. Science fiction has a hard time keeping up with the world, though, for many of us, it stands ageless and forever relevant in our hearts, a constant beacon of youthful exuberance and wonder at the full breadth of the universe.

I hope you’ll enjoy my various explorations of the big-screen myths SF has given us in recent years. Imperfect though they sometimes are, I believe that seeing worlds beyond our own brought to life in a way that’s both visible and readily accessible to the next generation of readers, dreamers, and creators is vital to keeping not only the written literature alive, but also to the mission of scientific discovery that is so often forgotten in this age of hardship and cynicism.

Whether or not topics like transhumanism and interstellar flight ought to be among our most immediate social concerns is something I leave up to the reader. But I will say this: Tomorrow is coming sooner than we may think, and science fiction gives us a vast canvas for exploring its various challenges and questions from the relative safety of our imaginations, long before we are forced to face them in reality.

So: if the future is Skynet, then science fiction is a kind of “T-850”—a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, reprogrammed with a more benevolent temperament and sent back in time to warn us about the various Bradburian follies we’ll inevitably make as our species advances.

(I use this last term in its loosest possible sense.)

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • “Like Tears in Rain”
  • “All Your Rebel Base Are Belong to Us”
  • “The Ancient Fear”
  • “Guardians of the Galaxy”
  • “What Is to Give Light”
  • “Ten of Sci-Fi Cinema’s Best-Kept Secrets”
  • “Comes the Dawn”
  • “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
  • “My Dream Anthology”
  • “Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut”
  • “Karmic Demons and the Power of Compassion”
  • “Kaiju Rising”
  • “The Star Wars”
  • “Clarion West”
  • “Man of Steel”
  • “Ten SF Novels Deserving of Film Adaptations”
  • “The Cabin in the Woods”
  • “Jingoism and the Culture of Fear”
  • “Alone on the Moon”
  • “Iron Man 3 as Critique of Techno-Darwinism”
  • “Oblivion”
  • “Individualism, Atheism, and the Search for God in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”
  • “Metadrama and SF in Affleck’s Argo”
  • “Nintendo’s 3DS XL”
  • “Django Unchained”
  • “The Lost Vamps”
  • “David Fincher’s Alien III”
  • “The Fire Must Be Kept Burning”
  • “Kubrick’s 2001 Vis-à-vis Clarke’s”
  • “The Safest Place There Is”

Reviews are welcomed and enormously appreciated. I’d love to hear what readers thought of my books. Feel free to direct any relevant comments or questions to my email at alexkanefiction@gmail.com, or come say hi on Twitter (@alexjkane).

The Vines of Cvancara

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An ad space in the concourse reads, THESE ARE THE FACES OF PLANETWIDE TERRORISM, the words strobing across a dozen mugshots of every earthen shade. The monastery situated along the aqueducts hears the implicit threat but pays it no mind. Below, the sprawling overworld of buckytubing and hydroponic jungle is packed with Gallu and humanity alike: a fragile coexistence born of decades and lives spent scrambling for resources that no longer matter.

The war has ended. Demonberries wither and rot on the vine.

Rufin spots an armada of capital ships disappearing into the heavens like wisps of smoke. They taunt him with their promise of the stars — a frequent sight, yet always out of reach. The metallic taste of ozone poisons the air, and a smell of rainwater sinks floorward from the misters above.

On his way to the temple Rufin catches sight of a frail, hunched man being hassled by a Gallu patrol at the nearest vac gate’s safety checkpoint. Rufin lowers his gaze to the mesh floor underfoot, keeps walking as the beast waves a security wand all about the man’s austere saffron robe and screeches a command.

The elder monk stops to open his bag, no doubt having been asked for ident verification, and flips through pocket after pocket in search of whatever data token might convince the sentry that he is who he says he is.

“Shouldn’t you cut that asshole down with your plasma torch or something?” Rufin whispers to the battered robot trundling beside him. Cypher turns his head — to the extent that he has a head — and regards the exchange with his optics array.

“I suggest we keep moving,” Cy says. “Though you tend not to listen to me.”

The patrol cradles a railgun in both hands. It towers over the monastic, barking a polyphony of threats in its native tongue.

Rufin makes a fist and pauses, then reaches for the organic pharmamine tucked away inside his satchel: a cold canister filled with bloodred fruits, programmed to kill.

“Our supply hasn’t been diluted yet, has it? These berries are still fresh,” he says.
Servomotors beneath Cy’s skeletal chassis whine as the robot slows to a halt. “To threaten a nonhuman sapient with harm of any kind is to violate the Constellation’s ceasefire treaty. Breaking interstellar law is unadvised.”

“Okay, yeah. But if we ignore this, he could wind up being taken in for ‘reconditioning.’ Or worse.”

Rufin’s aunt Darai has taught him to fight since he was a small boy. He knows how to time the detonation on a charge of demonberries perfectly, so that he’ll wreak mortal havoc on the Gallu’s nervous system and still leave enough distance between them to get away clean.

The monks he deals extract to, on the other hand, won’t approve. His ersatz bodhisattva speaks of the synchrony and compassion shared by all living creatures. . . .

Cy tells him, “To attack, even in the man’s defense, would defy all that he stands for.”

Rufin shakes his head. Of all the global population on Cvancara, the Buddhists have to be the biggest buyers — the ones with the cash, the deepest desire to shed the shackles of sensation and reality. The ones with the purest addiction, even if they’ll never admit it.

For them, it’s a spiritual matter. Nirvana means everything.

“Junkie hypocrites,” he sighs. “Burning away the world to free the mind from itself.”

He stalks slowly toward the Gallu and the monastic, hand resting on the bioweapon in his shoulder bag. The synthetic DNA that triggers the timed, controlled explosion within a pharmamine violates every counterterrorism law on the planet, and carrying it in any amount is punishable by death.

But right now, that doesn’t worry him. Why should it? He’s seen enough random knifings. Gunfights galore in the streets of the arcological megastructure that hangs over the alien world.

“Leave him alone!” he yells.

A sneeze spews forth from the creature’s upturned nostrils. Its eyes retract into the hollows of its massive avian skull; the hate glimmers visibly there. Armored appendages emerge from the Gallu’s vest and click into place a heartbeat later — fast, efficient. Lethal.

It thrums with the sudden surge of energy, like a factory waking at dawn.

“Please,” the monk rasps. “No violence. Not for me. We can learn to understand one another. Achieve loving-kindness on a galactic scale, as the Bodhichrist intended. The war’s little else than a memory.”

The Gallu growls something sinister, and the translation software in Rufin’s monocle responds: Leave us — repent — small, sad coward —

Then, a half-second later, Human —

“Maybe we should offer an apology,” Cy suggests.

Rufin gestures dismissively at his machine companion. Shivers as the railgun repeater’s nozzle finds its aim. He stares right back into it, unwilling to run.

He tells the monk, “They fear us, you know.”

“We can’t afford to notice,” the monastic says. “There is no returning from that abyss.”

Rufin feels for the cool vessel of death in his satchel, runs his thumb over the priming mechanism. Says, “Then run. Go sip the demon’s nectar and find your peace.”

Closer, now, the Gallu stands erect, hulking with muscle and an exoskeleton of cruel, exotic metals. It drops its weapon, which clatters to the wire-mesh floor. Splays its great clawed hands to seize him.

The old monk recoils against the empty silver turnstile, and then flees, his eyes alight not with fear but with pity. Rufin watches him go.

He’s been climbing the vines for years, harvesting yesterday’s instruments of pharmaceutical warfare and selling their fruits to the weak-willed. Never giving a second’s thought to what it might be like to feel your own mind extinguished suddenly, forever, in a dull heat as the husk of your body crumples to the ground.

Serrated talons pierce the flesh of his arms, and the moment for weighing his options is already past. But before the creature’s teeth can clamp down on his throat, before it can hold and rend him apart, Rufin lifts the cocktail up into the small space between them and squeezes the primer home.

Star Wars Episode VII — ‘The Ancient Fear': Was Darth Bane Wrong?

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Let’s talk about J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars film, the working title of which is reportedly The Ancient Fear. When the official cast list was first announced, my first reaction was that it was embarrassingly male-centric, but there was one man whose involvement I couldn’t help but get excited over: Max von Sydow. The assumption being bandied about by fans is that he’ll play the villain — a part he nailed in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which happens to be this particular Jedi Archivist’s all-time favorite film.

A quick scan of Google search results for his name indicates that the widespread, unsubstantiated theory about his role is that he’ll be playing Darth Plagueis, the canonical Sith Lord who mentored Palpatine for decades prior to and during The Phantom Menace and, later, Attack of the Clones. A member of the humanoid species the Muun, Plagueis was first and foremost a businessman who used his vast wealth and influence to advance his Sith agenda, much like Chancellor Palpatine.

With Andy Serkis heavily involved with production of Episode VII, this idea isn’t entirely without merit. Weta Digital’s MoCap technology would be the perfect VFX solution for translating von Sydow’s performance into a convincing alien Sith.

That said, I don’t quite buy it. First off: Plagueis was killed — that is, physically destroyed — by Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, in the events of the novel Darth Plagueis by James Luceno, ca. Attack of the Clones (or 22 B.B.Y.); while his life’s amibition had been devoted to achieving immortality through the power of the Force’s Dark Side, Luceno’s book seems to make it sufficiently clear that he failed to achieve that goal.

Second, I’m not convinced that Lucasfilm’s goal with the sequel trilogy will be to rehash existing Expanded Universe material that at this point has been deemed noncanonical, or that was only really relevant to the prequels. “The Legend of Darth Plagueis the Wise,” as Palpatine refers to it, is a story best left shrouded in mystery — it was a nice plot element in Revenge of the Sith, but we don’t need it going forward.

Were I writing a film called Star Wars: Episode VII — The Ancient Fear, well, I’d first approach the script with thoughts of something decidedly more ancient. If Plagueis was killed roughly twenty-five years before Jedi, then that’d make him old news by the time the events of the sequel trilogy unfold, some sixty years or so after his death.

But that ain’t exactly “ancient.”

Now, I’m not going to claim that I’m some expert on Jedi or Sith history, or assert that von Sydow is playing Bane. The Lucasfilm Story Group would be lucky to have somebody who’s as passionate about this mythos as I am on board, sure, but I don’t consider myself a Star Wars scholar when it comes to the EU and so forth.

What I do feel I’ve got a firm grasp on is that period of the saga’s history beginning shortly before the events of BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic and concluding with the final Darth Bane novel, Dynasty of Evil.

Drew Karpyshyn has his critics, as does any author given the privilege of playing around in this beloved universe, but I can honestly say that there’s no one whose books I’d more readily suggest to folks looking to get into Star Wars beyond the scope of The Clone Wars and the films themselves. What Karpyshyn did with both Knights of the Old Republic and his Darth Bane trilogy has, in my mind, forever enriched and expanded upon the mythology of the ancient Sith.

Again, I don’t suppose that von Sydow’s going to be Bane in Episode VII. But I do think he’s going to be playing at least some form of Sith Lord from the pre-B.B.Y., even pre-Dynasty of Evil chronology.

In Ryder Windham’s Jedi vs. Sith: The Essential Guide to the Force, a piece called “The Shadow of Freedon Nadd” explains that:

Four centuries after Nadd’s death, . . . Queen Amanoa, wife of Onderon’s ruler King Ommin, was possessed by the spirit of Freedon Nadd. . . . [The Jedi] tracked Amanoa to the deepest sublevels of her palace and discovered Freedon Nadd’s tomb, which had become the focus of dark side energy and enabled his power to pass to his descendants from generation to generation. (p. 17)

(We’ll just avoid the obvious pop-culture tangent here, where we delve into von Sydow’s role as The Exorcist, and any implications to be made about Sith “possession.”)

In other words, Plagueis failed in his lifetime to do what at least one Sith Lord had accomplished almost four millennia prior. We’re also told by Yoda on-screen in Revenge of the Sith that Qui-Gon Jinn was perhaps the first Jedi to master the Force and commune with the living beyond death, meaning that Plagueis’s goal can and has been achieved by members on both sides of the ageless war.

So Darth Plagueis is, essentially, incidental to the larger story of the Skywalker family and their role in the conflict between Jedi and Sith. A quick aside: there exists the possibility, based on the Expanded Universe’s success with the Yuuzhan-Vong War series beginning with R. A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime, that the titular “ancient fear” and any associated characters may not be Sith at all — but if the core six films of the canon are all about the Skywalkers bringing balance to the Force, I very much doubt that we’ll be seeing some alien species heretofore unknown to moviegoers.

It’d be cool to see the smart but whacky metadrama of Matthew Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor played out on the big screen, to offer a third possibility, but based on the track records of people like Abrams, I would err on the side of the sequels focusing on the Sith’s reemergence post-Jedi.

A Sith Empire, specifically.

Windham’s account of “The Battle of Ruusan,” also found in Jedi vs. Sith, describes the Sith Order prior to Darth Bane’s seizing of the mantle (through the eyes of Luke Skywalker, via Yoda’s tutelage) as follows:

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, a Jedi named Kaan turned away from the light and formed the Brotherhood of Darkness. The Brotherhood used the dark side of the Force to build an empire, and they were well on their way toward expanding it when an army was raised to opposed them. . . . They were Jedi. (p. 27)

Now, as we know from various (now-noncanonical) storylines in the Star Wars video games published by LucasArts over the past ten to fifteen years, the Brotherhood of Darkness was likely not the only Sith Empire ever to have surfaced — but given Darth Bane’s elevated status among the canon, thanks to his brief appearance in spirit on The Clone Wars during Yoda’s journey to the Sith homeworld of Moraband (i.e., Korriban), the Brotherhood’s history is one piece of the Star Wars mythos I’m confident that Lucasfilm’s Story Group considers to be canon.

What do we make of this? Well, most importantly, the Brotherhood of Darkness was, in the context of the Expanded Universe, the original precedent for what constitutes the Sith. The so-called “Rule of Two,” established by Darth Bane after he betrayed and murdered the Brotherhood with an ancient, forgotten Force technique called the Thought Bomb, only exists as the normative mode of being for the Dark Lords for a brief span of time — roughly a thousand years B.B.Y., I’d say.

Not to mention the fact that the Jedi Order still existed during the Battle of Ruusan. Thirty-some odd years after Return of the Jedi, who knows what remains of its hokey religion and ancient weapons? Probably not much.

Suppose Bane was wrong about the nature of the Dark Side. Suppose the ancient Rule of One, with a vast empire of disciples at the sole Dark Lord’s disposal, proves a source of greater power for the Sith, despite the apparent sacrifice of secrecy and stability.

Rumor has it that Han Solo hasn’t seen Luke in years at the time of Episode VII’s opening crawl — which could mean that, if Asajj Ventress or Darth Maul is still alive and seeking vengeance, a centuries- or millennia-old Dark Lord of the Sith looking to return from the netherworld of the Force and assemble an empire of Sith acolytes would be in a pretty advantagious position. With no Jedi to oppose him, a Freedon Nadd or Naga Sadow or Lord Vitiate might well cast the whole of the galaxy into a new era of darkness.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy': An Insta-Classic

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Nobody ever told me I needed to watch Parks and Recreation, that it was the funniest television series since Dave Chappelle broke all the rules over a decade ago. But my fiancée had the good sense to give it a go one night when there was nothing else to see on Netflix, and we’ve watched the hell out of it ever since. Seeing people like Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, and Aubrey Plaza hitting their stride was its own reward — and every episode is eminently rewatchable, which is more than I can say for some of the more disposable programming the big networks are churning out these days — but it’s the sudden and total self-reinvention of familiar character actors, like Rob Lowe, that makes Parks and Rec the finest sitcom I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

Enter Chris Pratt, who has made memorable appearances in films ranging from the graphic-novel adaptation Wanted (2008) to the unexpectedly brilliant romcom The Five-Year Engagement (’12). As the underachieving shoeshine boy with a big heart and small intellect, Pratt rounds out the core of Parks and Rec’s truly perfect cast, offering up ironic deadpan and lowbrow one-liners with the kind of timing and delivery that have grown to define his raw, enormous talent.

When Marvel announced a Guardians of the Galaxy film, I remember thinking, Well, cool. If it’s got more than a hint of Star Wars flavor, which seems a fair guess, how can it not be fun? And then they announced the cast. . . .

It was clear Feige and the rest of the people who’d made Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) such a colossal success were willing to take some chances and play around with the greater universe to which they’d staked their claim. This was around the time of the Marvel NOW! relaunch, which included a new ongoing Guardians of the Galaxy title — a comic that would go on to develop a reputation as one of the best things to come out of the Marvel universe in ages.

“It’s got a talking raccoon with a big-ass machine gun!”

That was how Stone, the guy who runs my local comics shop, summarized the new series. And it was impossible not to be curious. If Marvel was making Guardians their big post-Avengers tentpole film, something exciting had to be going on. I was pleased to discover that Tony Stark makes the occasional appearance, for starters. And Peter Quill and Gamora both hit all the right notes for me.

To say my hopes for the film adaptation became high might be something of an understatement, especially once I’d seen the trailer.

“I feel like this is maybe the movie I’ve been waiting my whole life to see,” I commented to a friend online. Then the months flew by, July 31st arrived, and somehow James Gunn didn’t disappoint.

The soundtrack alone — from ’70s staple “Go All the Way,” by the Raspberries, to The Runaways’ energetic “Cherrie Bomb,” not to mention Tyler Bates’s epic original score — gives the movie a certain insta-classic quality by balancing modern sounds with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Star-Lord’s introductory sequence on the planet Morag demonstrates Gunn’s competence as a director right away, from the well-choreographed action of Quill’s escape to the polished feel of the wide opening shots of the tomblike world and the augmented-reality technology necessary for Star-Lord to navigate it. Pratt earns a few laughs right out of the gate, doing what he does best; stellar actor Djimon Hounsou makes an appearance as Korath the Pursuer; the otherworldly Star-Lord mask is a given an immediate closeup, to ensure that its red-eyed stare becomes as iconic as the film itself seems destined to.

It never really slows down from there on out.

John C. Reilly makes a couple amiable appearances as a Nova Corps officer, with Glenn Close portraying his commander-in-chief, Nova Prime. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel steal much of the show by lending their voices to the wildly lovable Rocket Raccoon and sentient tree-thing Groot, respectively.

And by the end of the film’s two-hour runtime, you’re left buying it all — to the fullest extent possible. Instead of just having Rocket be a fast-talking, clever raccoon, the script mentions that he’s the result of experimentation using cybernetic uplift technology. Instead of Gamora (Zoë Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) having a petty, baseless sibling rivalry, we’re told that only one of them is Thanos’s daughter by blood; Gamora might as well have been called his prisoner of war, her family having been slaughtered by the Mad Titan (voiced and portrayed via MoCap by the inimitable Josh Brolin).

The backstories of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Groot are slightly less developed, and the film does its best to avoid the matter of Quill’s crown-prince-of-Spartax heritage — but given Gunn’s deft handling of the material that’s present in the film, I can’t help but feel all this will be handled sufficiently in the inevitable sequel. Ultimately, I suppose, the villains are the film’s one weak point. Benicio del Toro’s The Collector feels criminally underused, despite his space fortress serving as one of the main settings of the film’s second act. And Lee Pace is a bit of a caricature in his turn as Ronan the Accuser, who acts as a kind of Darth Maul to Thanos’s Sidious, to draw an all-too-easy comparison.

But Guardians of the Galaxy is, at the end of the day, something fresher and bigger than a mere Star Wars pastiche. Given its place within the larger context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has free reign when it comes to making Starkian references to pop culture and the recognizable DNA of blockbuster filmmaking. And it makes full, unabashed use of its lead’s strengths. When Quill hollers, from the cockpit of his starship Milano, “They got my ‘dick’ message!” — well, you don’t have to role your eyes. Because this flick has so much heart, and contributes to the fun-loving genre that is home to everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Back to the Future, the audience is willing to follow Star-Lord and his ragtag team of Guardians anywhere.