Watch as Marvel Takes Over the Galaxy

Like Rocket—a genetically engineered, cybernetically enhanced raccoon—Guardians of the Galaxy is a strange beast. Wanting to make a little cash, Rocket and his talking tree-buddy Groot try to collect a bounty on that guy from Parks and Recreation (and Zero Dark Thirty [Chris Pratt]). But the human, who wishes he were known as Star-Lord, not only has a 40,000 unit bounty on his head, but a softball-sized orb of power that every bigwig in the galaxy wants to steal or buy. Gamora, a femme fatale working for her supervillain step-daddy, crashes the party as Rocket and Groot try to bag Star-Lord, and all four go to jail, where they meet a musclebound literalist named Drax (whose stilted take on English sounds like those foreign dudes from Family Guy). Following in the wake of critically acclaimed comic book adaptations like Iron Man and The Avengers, Guardians represents an emphatic stake by Marvel Studios on the genre of comedy. It’s still a sprawling action movie, complete with boilerplate plot, senseless acts of violence, and large-scale digital destruction. But make no mistake: Guardians of the Galaxy is a riot, and Marvel’s master plan to take over Hollywood is well under way.

Much of the levity of the movie comes from the unremitting irony of its soundtrack.  Taken alone this collection of songs might be the most pandering soundtrack in the history of cinema. But the songs are tearily justified by the script, and it’s hard not to be amused by scenes of alien worlds and sleek technology overlaid with some of the catchiest songs of the seventies and eighties. Most are played for maximum dissonance, such as “The Piña Colada Song” during the team’s desperate escape from prison. One track sets the mood for a romantic moment—until Star-Lord starts talking about Kevin Bacon and Gamora kicks him in the balls.  The montage preceding the conventionally epic final battle is set to “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, which serves as a reminder that just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s punk rock (although Joan Jett is still in there somewhere). Like the Runaways, this film shows betrays a crass yet calculated commercialism, the raison d’etre of some some white male hegemonies in L.A. It fails the Bechdel test, it features little racial diversity, it suffers from obvious white savior syndrome as Star-Lord ‘dudes’ and ‘bros’ his way through the quadrant and finally wins the heart of the lady. Brutal violence against blue-collar humanoids is perpetrated with nary a moral qualm, despite young Star-Lord, in a 1988 prologue, standing up to frog-smushers at school and getting a black eye for his trouble.

Meanwhile, the strength of the film emerges from the interactions of the characters. Just like in The Avengers, banter between well-drawn team members saves the film from the meaninglessness of its blockbuster body plan. Rocket Raccoon becomes the surprising anchor of the story; he is an ingenious and violent freak, a perpetual outsider, a victim of ridicule and prejudice, an angry, embittered anthropomorph who ultimately doesn’t mind being pet a little. Voiced to great effect by Bradley Cooper, Rocket is not only visually believable, but emotionally credible as well. Rocket’s connection with his magical tree friend is the deepest in the story. Yet Vin Diesel, though well-billed as Groot, could probably have left his voice work on an answering machine.

As for the science, its totally non-existent. The universe is said to have formed from six singularities each leaving behind a differently-colored ‘infinity stone’—which might satisfy a cabalist, but not an astronomer. The purple stone, contained within Star-Lord’s orb, propels the plot: it destroys all organic matter on contact, oh and also it can only be wielded by beings of supreme power.  Luckily Star-Lord’s mom had sex with an angel and he’s only half human, allowing him, with some extra help from his team, to save a world that looks suspiciously like Elysium (or, for that matter, SHIELD HQ)—which is to say, so rich and polished that it could only have been built on the back of extreme poverty and ghettoization. Star-Lord’s angel DNA may also explain why he can space-walk without a suit. Of course, the term ‘science fiction’ is hardly applicable to a film like this. Its closest cinematic relative is The Fifth Element (1997). We’re talking the iconography of SF taken to extremes of fantasy and humor.

Crucially, despite the trappings of space opera, this film is set in 2014, and Earth is somewhere in the distance. This places the Guardians into the same diegetic space and time as the Avengers, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. The prospects for character and genre recombination in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are dizzying. With principal actors like Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson, rising superstars like Chris Pratt, venerable old pros like Glenn Close and Robert Redford (in the surprisingly astute security-state criticism Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plus talented and familiar actors everywhere you look, Marvel has the star power to back its pantheon of freaks and heroes. Next to join the milieu is comedian Paul Rudd in Ant-Man, which truly boggles the mind. We can only be thankful that the X-Men and Spiderman have their own ‘cinematic universes’ to inhabit (Marvel having sold the rights to other studios).

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read the comics: if you like movies, you might love what Marvel is doing. At a time when visual effects artists can accomplish anything, cinema is the next level of comic books as a medium for making fantastical stories and images. Some of Marvel’s films have been amazing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. The audience agrees: applauding the end of the film, then sitting through the credits to catch a glimpse of the future—which also walks like a duck, but quacks like something entirely different.

MCU Must See:
Iron Man (2008)
The Avengers (2012)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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More Money than Brains

With 2001 in the rear-view mirror, there have been no little green men, no meal-replacement pills, no flying automobiles, no space odysseys. But as big-budget plans to model the human brain prove, proponents of artificial intelligence remain hopeful. In its most literal sense, AI exists already: encoded and executed, endowed with sensors, lenses and microphones, connected to the internet, and stuck in your pocket. But how intelligent does a machine have to be before our worst nightmares come true? Intelligent enough to pass a Turing test? Intelligent enough to nuke the human race? And/or intelligent enough to be self-aware, and thus real by Cartesian standards? Apocalypse notwithstanding, that’s the threshold we’re really interested in: artificial consciousness, artificial free will, and artificial bodies for that matter, if they’re sexy enough.

But spending all the world’s neuroscience dollars on a supercomputer simulation of the brain’s neuronal connections will reveal less about AI and more about human stupidity. PZ Myers writes, “We aren’t even close to building such a thing for a fruit fly brain, and you want to do that for an even more massive and poorly mapped structure? Madness!” If the IT resources exist to simulate 90 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between them, mediated by dozens of different neurotransmitters and organized into highly specialized networks, there’s still no reason to expect intelligence to emerge or a ghost to glom on to the machine. The scientific consensus is that there’s still much to learn about the brain, and this will only be achieved through less grandiose and far-fetched research.

Spoiler Alert: Elysium

For writer and director Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is round two of sci-fi feature as social allegory, following in the footsteps of 2009’s District 9.  Whereas District 9 paralleled the history of apartheid in South Africa, Elysium deals with issues of illegal immigration and social class, centered on everyone’s favorite pre-apocalyptic wasteland, Los Angeles.

It’s a pure joy to see L.A. extrapolated to a vibrant, populous, spray-painted pile of rubble in the year 2154, where even gringos like Matt Damon hablan español.  This proletariat L.A., where ex-con Damon earns minimum wage building robot cops for “the man,” lies in stark contrast to the wheeling space station Elysium, where all the wealthy white people have gone to live lives of privilege and comfort.  On Elysium, if you break your leg or get your face blown off by a grenade, you have only to lie in a Med-Pod for a few seconds to be totally healed.  Then you can take your wine and picnic basket to a well-manicured lawn for lunch.

Wanting better healthcare, the denigrated residents of L.A. attempt to cross the “border” into Elysium illegally, and get blown out of space for their efforts.  One suspects Elysium would have less of a security problem if it weren’t parked in geosynchronous orbit directly above Los Angeles, taunting our heroes below.  Why hang your elitist space station like forbidden fruit over the heads of the downtrodden?

Unfortunately, all the allegory in the world can’t prevent this film from settling its differences with fisticuffs.  Sharlto Copley, as the bad guy Kruger, portrays one of the more nuanced and credible villains in recent memory, while Jodie Foster, exuding white-collar cruelty, delivers her lines on stilts.  But ultimately, it’s our star Matt Damon who brings about equality for all, sacrificing himself, Christ-like, for the welfare of the Hispanic peoples.   Why this requires an attractive white man is hard to say.  How can this film refute white exceptionalism while depending on it for a denouement?  In the world of Elysium, where do all the producers and movie stars live? And where would our friend Neill Blomkamp find himself?