By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood July 31, 2014 at 1:44PM
"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").
"Music really is important to me," says Gunn. "I relate to that story [of Quill clinging to his music]. When I was hired to write and direct this film, the first thing that came to me was the idea of ['Awesome Mix Vol. 1'] and the Sony Walkman and this retro feel amongst something that was pretty new. And that was this one character's emotional attachment to earth and the familiarity of those pop songs that contrasted with the otherworldly surroundings. And everything comes from that [including a plot point where Quill risks his life for his music]. We think of the Orb as the MacGuffin, but this tape is the emotional MacGuffin in many ways."
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.
"There's an innocence to his character that elicits an emotional response from so many people," Gunn suggests. "What was so strange is that even on set there were moments when we were all getting teary-eyed over stuff that Groot was doing and he wasn't there. He was designed and we knew what he looked like, but he wasn't doing anything. But there was something about the way we were moving around him, especially Zoe Saldana felt like this a lot, that we became attached to that character and had a love for him before we ever animated him, before anybody voiced him. And I think that Vin was the final piece of the puzzle that cemented him because his voice really fulfills the promise of what that visual effect was."
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).
"Groot is difficult but Rocket is really difficult because you've got a creature that does not have a mouth that's made to talk, that has to talk. And you have a creature that looks like an animal with human characteristics but he can't look like a cartoon."
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."