There are many reasons to love Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s funny, it’s smart and it’s one hell of an action-packed ride. The film was a risk; unlike Captain America or Batman, almost no one knew who the these characters were before the film came out. Making a successful blockbuster out of a no-name property was no small feat. But thanks to a breakthrough performance from Chris Pratt and James Gunn’s unique vision, audiences around the world now know exactly who Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot are.
But there is more to Guardians than its wit. As I noted in my review, Guardians elevates itself through clever nostalgia. This is most obviously done through its classic 60s-70s soundtrack, diegetically integrated into the film via Peter Quill’s tape player. However, Gunn extends this older sensibility to every facet of the film.
The movie is structured more like classic Star Trek than it is the J.J. Abrams reboot. The characters are all deeply reminiscent of famous science fiction characters like Captain Kirk and Han Solo. Narratively, the story definitely smacks of the same spirit of exploration that Gene Roddenberry’s franchise thrived on. And, importantly, the film makes use of modern technology in a way we haven’t seen since Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Wars first hit the scene.
Back in the day, filmmakers used analog techniques like optical printing, rotoscoping and matte painting to achieve effects like lightsabers and laser blasts. Much has been written about this very distinct aesthetic and how it contrasts with more modern examples of visual effect technologies. Most notably, writers have discussed the radical difference between the original Star Wars films and their Special Edition “upgrades,” the latter having been created at the advent of computer generated imagery.
One of the strongest arguments about CGI has been that no matter how beautiful and complex digital objects are, they rarely seem to integrate with real characters and sets. They lack believability for several reasons, including the fact that they aren’t lit in a way that implies they’re in the same environment as anything else in the scene; despite the efforts of the digital artists, shadows and textures rarely match the rest of the props and actors. Lightsabers, aliens and lasers all feel like distinct entities from their real-life counterparts.
What’s interesting about Guardians is that it is no different in this regard. CGI still retains that uncanny valley look. Yet, the effects in the film still have an undeniable fidelity to them. CGI hasn’t become photorealistic to the point where we can implicitly accept a computer generated character. And since Guardians mostly uses the same tech that movies like The Avengers or Winter Soldier did, what makes this film stand out?
It comes down to filmmaking. James Gunn made deliberate choices in how he introduced his world and his characters in Guardians. He uses clever filmmaking to erase the distinction between CGI and reality. While it seems like a simple answer, these choices lead to a more cohesive and ultimately more believable story.
Please note that detailed spoilers for Guardians are to follow.
The film wastes no time in immersing the viewer in the Guardians universe. Gunn begins with a somber set-up scene wherein a young Peter Quill, absorbed in the music of his Sony Walkman, sits in the waiting room of a hospital as doctors treat his ailing mother. She passes in short order, and in his grief he runs crying in to the night. That’s when an alien space ship abducts him.
Fast forward several decades. We hear Tyler Bates’ imposing score as we watch a tall jacketed figure traversing a foreign planet called Morag. The figure uses a tracking device as he scans the surface. He finds a large abandoned building and goes in. A shot of his face shows his mask dissolve away. It’s a human man. He puts on headphones and the shot tilts down to something familiar: a Walkman. Now we know it’s Quill.
This first moment tells us that Quill is now an adult. With the use of a desaturated color palette and Bates’ musical accompaniment, it also communicates that he is something of a serious explorer. Quill then takes out his headphones. We can see that this character likes music. That’s when “Come and Get Your Love” starts to play, and we instantly find a familiar Earthly touchstone with which we can relate.
This scene is key. It’s hilarious and endearing to watch a very human Chris Pratt casually sing and dance through this abandoned alien building. But this moment tells us something about the film, as well. Gunn informs us that serious will always be paired with fun, usually though subversion. This is stamped and approved as the giant title appears over Quill’s head:
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Through visual cues, we are shown exactly what kind of tone we can expect in Guardians and what sort of protagonist Peter Quill will be. Just as Captain America was an “in” for newcomers to The Avengers, Quill is quickly established as our connection to the zany Guardians galaxy. This “proxy” technique is used constantly in fantasy and science fiction cinema (see Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars and Neo in The Matrix), and it works here with particular aplomb.
But we still haven’t been sold on CGI, which is why this musical sequence is so essential. It is here that we get our introduction to our first CGI creature: a lizard-rat hybrid that is clearly not of Earth. The first time we see it, Quill, our human proxy, kicks it out of a puddle. Then he kicks two more. Splashing in puddles is both referential (it evokes the iconography of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain) and nostalgic (what kid doesn’t enjoy jumping in puddles?). More than that, physical contact immediately gives us a sense that these obviously fake fantastical creatures are a part of the same world as Quill. Therefore, they are a part of our world.
Quill takes this tactile connection a step further. In a sequence ostensibly played for comedy, he grabs a lizard-rat from a nearby rock and sings into it as it if were a microphone. Beyond its humorous appeal, this operates on the viewer in two ways. First, it gives us a direct connection between this alien world and our own. Singing into objects is a familiar trope; in films and in real life, we know people like to sing into combs and other items as if they’re microphones. This of often occurs in the shower, as seen here and here. The lizard alien, “fake” though it may be, has taken on a very Earth-like role.
The second operation is that the way this CGI character is imbued with physical characteristics. Just like when Quill kicked the lizard aliens in the puddle, here he takes a the alien and tangibly interacts with it. We can see it has weight, that it can be held and that it can be sung into. In combination with our cultural reference point of turning objects into microphones, Gunn further knits across the divide between “real” and “unreal.” Subconsciously, we begin to accept that in Guardians, there is no distinction between the two.
This visual trick is echoed throughout the film. One easy example is Groot and Rocket Racoon, both of whom were motion captured with real actors but operate as full characters alongside the rest of the Guardians. Early on in the movie, one particular scene emphasizes their realistic equivalence with Gamora and Quill.
When Quill, Gamora, Groot and Rocket are all taken to prison, they are sprayed down with orange liquid and handed a prison jumpsuit. At this pint, Gunn has the opportunity here to go in several different directions. He could go for exploitation and shown Gamora drenched in said liquid (something J.J. Abrams certainly might have done). He also could have simply left Quill alone, shivering and humiliated. This would have reaffirmed his feeling out of place and afraid amidst a jail full of intergalactic criminals.
But Gunn does neither of those things. Instead, a soaking CGI Rocket Racoon follows Quill into the room carrying a tiny jumpsuit of his own. In this moment, he’s just as wet and irritated as Quill. Once again, Gunn has imbued a computer generated object with physical traits. As human viewers, we know what liquid looks and feels like and we are reminded of this when Quill is drenched in the previous shot. So when we see a CGI creation affected in the same way by the same substance as our human proxy, we again feel a subconscious connection to this non-real character.
Other examples of this phenomenon can be found throughout the film. Off the top of my head:
- Rocket and Groot bagging Quill on Xandar
- Groot becoming a ladder for Drax and Quill to climb during the Kyln escape
- Drax and Groot wrestling at the bar in Knowhere
- Groot taking Drax out of the yellow liquid and then puncturing his chest
- The Groot cocoon on the Dark Aster
- Drax scratching Rocket’s ears after the final battle
James Gunn achieved something unseen and unheard of in this modern age of computer technology. He successfully bridged the world of intricate sets, detailed tatoos, body paint and complex props with the technology behind films like Iron Man. Despite our understanding as an audience that some of the characters, objects and environments aren’t “real,” the characters onscreen sell them as tangible entities. The result is a world we feel like we could step into, and characters we could sit down with.
No small feat, indeed.