"Guardians of the Galaxy" is the most irreverent Marvel departure so far, and, thanks to comedy writer-director James Gunn ("Slither," "Super"), we’re reminded that sci-fi can be fun. What’s old is new again. But even though it wasn’t his intention to give us a nostalgia trip while creating his own colorful galaxy of rogues and villains, it’s an occupational hazard of turning archetypes on their heads. (TOH! review and roundup here.)
"When they first told me about ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ I wasn’t sure about it," Gunn insists. "I’m a big Marvel comics fan but I didn’t see this as a movie. But for some reason, driving home from a meeting with the Marvel guys, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the space epic I’ve always wanted to make… The movies that influenced this movie the most were the movies that I saw as a kid: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘ Back to the Future.’ I didn’t want to make a movie that was like those movies, but a movie that made people feel like those movies made me feel because they were so novel and different.
"But this movie has a nostalgia to it, and so did those movies. ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders’ were harkening back to the pulp serials of the ’20s and ’30s, and this movie harkens back to the movies of the ’70s and ’80s. And there’s something about the forwardness of the movie with the backward feeling that is similar to those movies. But that aspect of it is not something I thought of until I was finished."
This nostalgia trip is only strengthened by "Guardian’s" theme about loss. It permeates everything, especially the heroic journey of Chris Pratt’s outlaw Peter Quill, who longs to deserve the name Star-Lord. And while it was a wide-open opportunity to introduce a lesser known Marvel world, Gunn attempted something very dangerous in making a meta-movie about the importance of pop music. It could’ve been disastrous if we didn’t connect emotionally with the power of those silly love songs (ranging from "Hooked on a Feeling" to "I’m Not in Love" to "Come and Get Your Love" to "O-O-H Child").
However, the film’s emotional center belongs to Groot, the lovable, tree-like humanoid (voiced by Vin Diesel, who could be a distant cousin to his beloved Iron Giant). Groot is sensitive, funny, and surprisingly strong and resilient, with the ability to spontaneously grow his branches at will to avoid danger and to attack assailants. He’s beautifully animated by London-based MPC, which came up with a very complicated facial rig, exterior body rig as a series of plates, and an interior structural rig with branches and twigs sliding and pulling like muscles. But the detailed eyes and sockets were very important for emoting. And his single line, "I am Groot," is bound to become a popular catchphrase.
By contrast, Groot’s buddy, the badass, genetically-engineered Rocket raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), was even harder to animate by London-based Framestore. Fur wasn’t as much of a problem as getting his eyes to look believable and retaining enough of his inherent animal quality (such as being tactile and using his fingers while multitasking).
Yet Gunn had no trouble figuring out the distinctive look he was after that’s far afield from the current dystopian craze: "I got hired to direct before I got hired to write [he took over from Marvel writer Nicole Perlman] and the very first thing that interested me after my meeting with Marvel was the look, and I went right home and wrote this document about the visuals of the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ I really wanted to bring back the colors of the space movies like ‘Forbidden Planet’ yet keep the grittiness of movies like ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner.’ But I think since that time, most science fiction movies have become too dark and too brooding. So that rich color palette was extremely important to the movie."
With Marvel already announcing "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" at Comic-Con for July 2017, Gunn can’t wait to get started. The only two things that are certain, though, is that there will be an "Awesome Mix Vol. 2" and the discovery of Quill’s mysterious father.
"And the only people who know that are me, [Marvel president] Kevin Feige, and Michael Rooker [who plays the blue-skinned alien, Yondu, and kidnapped the young Quill]," Gunn teases. "I have the beginning of something and I’m excited."