When the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuted six years ago, a film adaptation of the Guardians of the Galaxy series of comics would have seemed impossible. It’s easy to see why audiences would respond to characters like Iron Man and Captain America, but The Guardians were virtually unknown to the general public. But nowadays Marvel Studios is a juggernaut, with each of their last three films all grossing more than $600 million worldwide. It’s this immense popularity that makes a film like Guardians of the Galaxy possible. Hopefully audiences respond to this film as enthusiastically as they have in the past because Marvel’s strangest film is also their best. Guardians is a blisteringly exciting sci-fi adventure, filled with big laughs, memorable characters, beautiful visuals and a surprising amount of genuine emotion. Watching it is a reminder of how fun and exciting movies can be.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) may be a space pirate, but he wasn’t always such a rogue. As a young boy, he grew up on earth until his mother passed away and he was picked up by a spaceship captained by the scoundrel Yondu (Michael Rooker). Now Quill travels around the galaxy, picking up girls while also stealing rare items and selling them to the highest bidder. His attempts to steal a rare sphere attracts the attention of an elite assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a wisecracking, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and a large humanoid tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). Gamora attacks Quill in an attempt to get the sphere, while Rocket and Groot attempt to capture Quill to cash in on the bounty that’s been placed on his head. Their scuffle lands the four of them into a maximum security prison where they run into a powerful individual named Drax (Dave Bautista). This ragtag group of heroes soon learns that this sphere may be more powerful than any of them could imagine and they’ll need to put aside their differences to stop a powerful warrior named Ronan (Lee Pace) from taking over the galaxy.

Director James Gunn’s space opera feels like a testament to the magic of movies. It’s a film that transports us to another world, one that feels wholly believable for the entirety of the two hour experience. Comparisons to the Star Wars franchise are inevitable, but instead of stealing from those films, Gunn simply takes some of the parts that were successful and reworks them in exciting new ways. There have obviously been an endless number of science fiction films that have taken us on a journey through space, but this one feels particularly unique and exciting. I can’t wait to see what future sequels have in store for us; the idea of further exploring this universe is enticing.

Gunn’s debut feature was the hilariously irreverent horror/comedy Slither and a similar sense of humor has made its way into the script for Guardians, which he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman. From the opening titles all the way to the post credits stinger, the film earns big, crowd pleasing belly laughs. It’s definitely Marvel’s funniest film to date and, luckily, the humor never feels forced. All of the laughs arise from the characters and their interactions with one another. One of the funniest scenes in the film has all five of the Guardians sitting together, trying to formulate some type of plan. The jokes arise from nothing but dialogue, avoiding any type of broad humor that is occasionally placed into these types of films to appeal to children.

Chris Pratt may have started as the lovable goof on TV’s Parks and Recreation, but over the past few years he’s established quite an impressive filmography. He’s done great work in films like Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball and Her, but it’s his performance as Peter Quill that is sure to turn him into a household name. Quill is a Han Solo-type figure: charming, funny and always willing to get the job done, sometimes in the clumsiest way possible. Pratt embraces these aspects of the character, while also making sure that his character has a heart for the audience to connect with. Zoe Saldana is as stunning as ever as Gamora and wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista is surprisingly great as Drax, but the scene stealers in the film are Rocket and Groot. Groot may not say much, but he gets big laughs and Vin Diesel’s voice fits the character perfectly, while Rocket was my favorite character in the entire film. He’s a full of himself, wisecracking know-it-all, who is possibly the best sci-fi character that I’ve seen in recent years. Groot and Rocket feel incredibly realistic, thanks to some spectacular visual effects work. They’re entirely CGI creations, but they come across as real in every scene.

While there are a lot of laughs and adventures to be had, one of the most surprising aspects of the film is the genuine emotion that successfully sneaks up and pulls on the heartstrings. Each of these characters has had some sort of hardship to overcome and each backstory is affecting in its own way. One of the final scenes with Quill, in which he finally opens a gift given to him by his mother so many years ago, is particularly moving. But the emotional aspects of the story never overshadow the immense amount of fun to be had. With great characters, gorgeous looking makeup and set design, exciting action and a toe-tapping soundtrack filled with forgotten hits from the 1970s, this is a film that’s so enjoyable that any of its minor flaws can be completely overlooked. Guardians of the Galaxy is the reason we go to the movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy receives 3.5/4