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Intergalactic vision

Fri., Aug. 1, 2014, midnight

Director James Gunn poses for a portrait at Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., on July 19. (Associated Press)
Director James Gunn poses for a portrait at Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., on July 19. (Associated Press)

Director James Gunn draws on sci-fi classics, ’70s hits for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

BURBANK, Calif. – About midway through Marvel’s new interstellar adventure “Guardians of the Galaxy,” David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” plays over a shot of a ramshackle spaceship traveling toward a mining colony called Knowhere. The planet is actually the severed head of a fallen titan (or deity) where workers of alien races, some with candy-colored skin, collect valuable bone and fluid to ship to the outer reaches of the cosmos.

The sequence could have been cribbed from the imagination of surrealist trickster Alejandro Jodorowsky, perhaps as part of his unrealized cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel “Dune.” Yet it’s far from the only over-the-top landscape in the film, which arrives in theaters today as Marvel’s riskiest venture.

Based on a fairly obscure comic series, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the first major studio film to be directed by James Gunn, a subversive stalwart who cut his movie teeth at New York’s low-fi cinema factory Troma Entertainment. It introduces audiences to a new team of heroes led by Chris Pratt’s sarcastic Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord; the group includes a green alien assassin, a hulking tattooed warrior, and two wholly CG characters: a machine-gun wielding raccoon and a sentient tree.

There’s also a soundtrack littered with 1970s favorites, and a Walkman, a device unknown to many younger viewers, plays an integral part in the storyline.

“I can’t believe they let me do all this stuff,” Gunn said in mid-July on Disney’s Burbank lot. “It’s really sinking in for the first time. For the past two years, all I’ve been doing is driving forward, making this movie. Now I’m done and I’m standing outside of it, and I’m going, ‘How did you guys let me get away with all that?’ ”

From its inception, “Guardians” was designed to be something different from the other comic book blockbusters Marvel has produced since 2008’s “Iron Man,” most of which take place on Earth and feature recognizably human characters.

The $170-million movie is the studio’s 10th release but the first wholly “cosmic” adventure – bringing to the screen a corner of the Marvel universe that has long been fertile creative ground for comic-book writers and artists but had been only briefly referenced in earlier hits, including “The Avengers.”

In shaping the film, Gunn said he took inspiration from science-fiction classics including “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” but with its soaring action set pieces, outre environments and inventive creature design, “Guardians” seems far closer to an updated riff on “Star Wars,” albeit one with a decidedly bratty sense of humor and a sweetly retro spirit.

“All of us at Marvel wanted to do a big space movie for a long time – we grew up on those kinds of movies,” said Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who closely oversees each of the projects in the company’s stable.

“All of the soul of the movie is 100 percent James,” Feige said. “It very much is a James Gunn film and a James Gunn vision. … He’s got a great voice, he’s got great ideas.”

Gunn was initially resistant to casting Pratt, widely known for playing disheveled underachievers such as Andy Dwyer on NBC’s comedy “Parks and Recreation,” but was eventually won over by his facility with comedy and his easy charm.

The role required Pratt to spend six months reshaping his physique, and he would work out for hours in his home gym while listening to the songs from the film – one of the few connections Quill has to his past is a mix tape his mother made for him as a boy that includes Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” (Gunn chose the songs.)

Despite its oddball trappings, “Guardians” now appears likely to become the first film in a new franchise. Feige confirmed that Gunn would direct a sequel should Marvel plan to move forward with one, and Gunn said he’s already begun thinking about further adventures for the team.

He believes the film succeeds largely because lurking beneath its action movie trappings is a heartfelt sincerity.

“In today’s world, it’s very cool to not care,” Gunn said. “This is about a bunch of characters who do not care, and over the course of the movie they find themselves backed into a corner where they discover who they really are – creatures and people who care.”


 

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