For all the pomp and spectacle, for all the CGI and wisecracking humor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a film about relationships at its heart. One particularly fascinating relationship is the one between Nebula and Gamora, which builds to a climax midway through the movie as the two sisters escalate their feud to terrifying levels.
What is it that makes this scene work so well? Why does it feel raw and dangerous in a way that the rest of the movie doesn't? In a video described as an 'Anatomy Of A Scene,' #JamesGunn has revealed just a hint of the work he put into this sequence...
A Powerful And Dramatic Scene
It's not hard to see why Gunn refers to this scene as "North By Northwest" — it's clearly inspired by the famous crop-duster scene in Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest. In true #Marvel fashion though, Gunn takes this to the next level. Following the ship's crash, the scene moves to Gamora hefting one of the guns from the wreckage. According to Gunn, that was a deliberate attempt to one-up The Rock in Fast and Furious 7.
But what makes this scene so powerful? Well, the first thing I'd pull out is the fact that it lacks music. In #GuardiansOfTheGalaxyVol2, that's pretty unusual; just as with the original, the latest Guardians movie is famed for its soundtrack. As I've discussed in an earlier post, though, James Gunn uses the music to cleverly hide the emotional intensity of his scenes, to avoid them becoming overly bleak and dark. In the context of the film as a whole, the lack of music makes this scene all the more raw and intense. You really feel the emotions — the anger, the hatred, the years of frustration and bitterness between these two sisters.
Constructing The Scene
There's a beautiful irony in the way that James Gunn constructed this scene. After feeling inspiration for the battle, Gunn sketched out the storyboards long before he added the dialogue. Frankly, it's almost Marvel-style in the comic book sense — harkening back to the approach that characterized Marvel back in the days of Stan Lee. Under Marvel-style, the writer would jot down a vague description of the scene, the artist would create it, and then the writer would pencil in the dialogue afterwards.
I love the way that Gamora and Nebula switch power positions as the sequence goes on. In the clip above, you see the first switch — from Nebula shooting at her running sister, to Gamora launching a brutal counter-attack. Of course, Gunn's video only shows half the scene — soon they're fighting hand-to-hand, and it's ultimately Nebula who wins.
Check out these deleted scenes featuring the sisters together in Guardians of the Galaxy below:
The switch in power positions is more than just a narrative conceit to up the tension. While both sisters are usually labelled as hero or villain, this scene reveals that there is no real difference between Gamora and Nebula. It strips them to their cores — to the bitter, broken sisters who are desperate for their years-long rivalry to end. Each cuts loose against the other, each makes a concerted attempt to kill the other. In this battle, there is no light or dark, no good or bad; there are just two people lashing out in rage at one another. The power positions are symbolic, revealing that the two are so very alike, despite their protestations to the contrary.
Down The Rabbit Hole...
What's more, according to Gunn there's another level of symbolism. The sisters go deeper and deeper into this hole as they go deeper and deeper into their relationship. At one level, they're attempting to kill one another; at the next level, Gamora chooses to move beyond her rage and save Nebula's life until finally, Nebula lets loose a heartfelt cry of rage and exposes the pain that has gone unsaid for so many years. That's the moment when their relationship changes, the moment when the sisters reveal the secrets of their hearts and finally begin to reconcile their differences.
In a strange way, the whole scene almost plays out as an act of conversation, with each opening up and revealing layer after layer of their character. As Karen Gillen (Nebula) told Yahoo Movies:
"They’re assassins. So while most sisters would pull each other’s hair at most, we’ll try to kill each other. We communicate with swords and fists."
The action-packed scene took four days to film. Zoe Saldana (Gamora) is a trained ballerina, and does all her own stunts — particularly impressive considering that she gave birth to twins a year-and-a-half ago! Gillen, on the other hand, is a little more wary; she has a close relationship with Saldana, and has flourished under her tutelage, but still uses a stunt double where necessary. Still, in the finished version, you really can't tell!
James Gunn is an absolute genius. He's taken inspiration from a classic Hitchockc film, North by Northwest, and twisted it in an over-the-top, sci-fi way that's so very powerful. What's more, everything that Gunn's done in this scene — every concept he storyboarded, the flow of power positions, even the absence of music — just emphasizes the emotional depth of this moment. Scenes like this are why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 deserves the success we're seeing.