Keep on Trekkin': J.J. Abrams injects new life into classic sci-fi franchise

Last fall, geek icon J.J. Abrams—the creative force behind such addictive TV serials as “Alias,” “Lost” and “Fringe”—hit the road on a cross-country promotional tour in support of his sophomore outing as a feature filmmaker, a big-budget, action-packed reboot of the Star Trek franchise. At almost every pit stop on this so-called "Star Trek Road Show," Abrams opened his remarks with the following statement: "I've never been a fan of Star Trek." This may seem like an unlikely way to introduce yourself as the man that Paramount has entrusted to revive one of its most recognizable brands, but then everything about the newest Trek outing is unlikely, beginning with the fact that it features a cast of fresh new faces calling themselves "Kirk," "Spock" and "Bones."

The decision to recast these iconic roles cuts against decades of conventional wisdom that audiences would riot if anyone but William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley appeared onscreen in Starfleet garb. That was one of the reasons the franchise's minders decided in the mid-’80s that Star Trek's future lay in creating new shows and new characters. And while the original show's first two descendents—"The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine"—were well-received, they were followed by "Voyager" and "Enterprise," series that even hardcore Trekkers had difficulty generating much enthusiasm for.

Meanwhile, the franchise's big-screen ventures were losing steam with each installment, culminating in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, which grossed an anemic $43 million—the lowest box-office take of any Trek feature. Three years later, "Enterprise" aired its last episode and the Star Trek brand appeared to reach the end of its 40-year mission to explore the final frontier, seeking out new life and new civilizations. To make the series relevant again, Paramount knew they needed to find someone who loved science-fiction, if not necessarily Star Trek; someone who knew how to tell stories that balanced compelling drama with kick-ass action; and someone who could make a movie that would appeal to Trekkers and non-Trekkers alike. In short, someone exactly like J.J. Abrams.

Paramount first approached Abrams with the idea of taking the U.S.S. Enterprise out of mothballs shortly after the release of his debut feature, Mission: Impossible III. "I was interested in the challenge,'" he says, on the phone from California, adding that he initially signed on only as the film's producer. His first decision as the Enterprise's new captain was to take Star Trek back to basics, which for him meant a return to the conflict that defined the original series—the occasionally fractious friendship between a man of action (that would be one James Tiberius Kirk) and a man of logic (Vulcan scientist Mr. Spock). "For me, Star Trek was always about Kirk and Spock," he explains. "I know there are huge fans of 'The Next Generation' and the other iterations of it, but to me, it was a Kirk and Spock story and [the writers] extrapolated other series and movies from that fundamental idea."

To devise the right story to re-launch the series, Abrams assembled a brain trust of friends and frequent collaborates that included his “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof, “Fringe” exec producer Bryan Burk and M:I scribes (and the writers of both Transformers movies) Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. "It was a great balance between people who knew the material and those who couldn't care less about it," Abrams says. "For example, Robert is an obsessed fan, whereas Bryan had never even seen Star Trek before."

Working closely together, the group conceived a plotline that restarts the story from scratch, while also paying homage to the mythology that fans have grown up with since “Star Trek” hit the airwaves in 1966. "My approach to the entire movie—from the writing, to the casting, to the wardrobe—was to take the spirit of what was written 43 years ago and tell that story through the prism of what is relevant and right for today. I didn't want the props to look like they were taken off the prop shelf from 1966, I didn't want the design to look like we were [copying] what had been done, and I didn't want the cast mimicking the original actors. This story needed to feel like it was cut from the same cloth, yet be its own film entirely."

As a way of linking the old and new Treks, Abrams enlisted the services of Leonard Nimoy (so far the only member of the original cast who has a confirmed appearance in the film, although rumors of a surprise Shatner cameo still abound on the Internet) to reprise his career-defining role, playing an elderly Spock, who travels back in time to advert an attack by an evil Romulan warlord (Eric Bana) that would alter the course of the future. In the past, Spock crosses paths with Jim Kirk (played by Chris Pine), fresh out of Starfleet Academy and taking part in his first mission aboard the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the character that, as every self-respecting Trekker knows, preceded Kirk as the ship's captain in the original series as well.

Also on board are such recent Starfleet grads as communications officer Uhura (Zoë Saldana), helmsmen Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), and Kirk's pal in sickbay, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban). Last, but certainly not least, there's young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), a half-human, half-Vulcan junior officer who is a stickler for the rules and regulations that the rebellious Kirk gleefully flouts at every opportunity. To say the two don't get along is an understatement; when an attack leaves Pike disabled and Spock in charge of the ship, he seizes the opportunity to deposit Kirk on a remote planet, as far from the action as possible. It's here that Kirk encounters the older version of Spock, as well as a brilliant engineer with a broad Scottish accent named—what else?—Scotty (Simon Pegg).

Believe it or not, that's only the tip of the iceberg in a story that contains numerous plot twists as well as pedal-to-the-metal action set-pieces. "The movie is a lot," Abrams says gleefully. "The goal for me was to make the movie equivalent of that ride at the amusement park you've just gotta go on. I didn't want people to feel like this was anything other than an exciting, fast-paced ride. At the same time, I didn't want it to be shallow and empty. We've all seen movies that are filled with action and spectacle and are ultimately devoid of any heart or meaning. The beautiful thing about this script is that it has wonderful emotional through-lines. At its core, it's about this group of people that barely know each other and go through this massive adventure together and, at the end of it, emerge as a kind of family."

In fact, Abrams says it was reading the finished script that convinced him he had to direct the movie as well as produce. "I realized that Robert and Alex's screenplay had all the elements of films I've loved in the past. The reason I wanted to make movies was to tell character-based stories that made room for massive spectacle. That's the kind of stuff I've loved since I was a kid. I just thought, ‘When in my life am I going to get another opportunity to direct a massive space adventure?'"

Of course, writing a new adventure for Kirk and Spock is one thing. Finding two actors brave and versatile enough to portray these sci-fi icons proved to be an even tougher challenge. "I thought casting Spock would be the hardest job," Abrams says. "I mean, who could you possibly get to play that guy? But it was obvious from the beginning that Zachary Quinto was born for this role. He was the first person we cast." From there, Abrams filled out the rest of the Enterprise's crew with familiar but not wildly famous faces.

The one role that kept eluding him, though, was Kirk. "We were approaching the shoot date and we still didn't have a captain. Then Chris Pine came in and just owned it. He was funny, he was smart, he was great-looking, he could play vulnerable and he could play cocky. In this movie, Kirk has a wide range of experiences and the actor who would take that on needed to be incredibly facile. Chris seemed without limits."

The fact that neither of the movie's leading men had carried big-budget features before—Quinto is best known for his role on NBC's cult hit "Heroes," while Pine's resume includes a handful of supporting parts in movies like Smokin' Aces and Bottle Shock—didn't faze Abrams for a moment. "It was impressive to see the confidence, comfort level and kindness that Chris and Zach brought to their roles. Their focus was always, ‘How do we make this scene as good as it can be?' Sometimes they were hard on themselves, but it was wonderful to see how they were able to not only do their job, but also do another job that's not as obvious: make the set a happy place. For everyone to do their best work, the set has to be a place where there isn't any acrimony or rage or insecurity. And when the people at the top of the call list are as generous as Tom Cruise, or Jennifer Garner or Chris and Zach, it creates [the right] atmosphere."

Like the film's cast, Abrams came into Star Trek with something to prove. Although he's directed a number of virtuoso action sequences in the course of his career—including the bone-shattering girlfight from Alias's second-season finale, the gripping plane crash in “Lost”’s pilot episode and the tense Vatican break-in from Mission: Impossible III—this film demanded a scale he hadn't attempted in his previous work.

"In my experience, an establishing shot was a building or a city—on Star Trek, the establishing shot is a planet," Abrams says, laughing. "It completely changes the way you perceive scale. And even when you wrap photography on a movie like this, you're still directing, only you're working with special-effects teams from ILM. I've been an F/X hobbyist all my life so, for me, this is a dream to work with ILM on something like this. They continue to be the best in the business by pushing their own limits."

Certainly, the clips that were shown at the Star Trek Road Show were packed with dazzling bits of effects-heavy action, most notably an extended sequence that finds Kirk, Sulu and a Redshirt (Trekker code for a nameless character that inevitably perishes on every mission) base-jumping from a spaceship onto a platform suspended in mid-air above the surface of a distant planet. "I felt that this movie required a certain aggressive energy," Abrams explains. "To me, ‘Star Trek’ was always promising adventure and it delivered on an intellectual level more often than a visceral level. So this movie felt like an opportunity to do both. Our ambition was to be as clever as the most clever episodes of ‘Star Trek’ and as action-oriented and fast-paced as my favorite action movies."

In the process of reinventing Star Trek for a new generation of moviegoers, a strange thing happened to Abrams: He became an actual Trekker. "If you had asked me before this film was shot who my favorite character was, I would have said, 'I don't have one,'" he admits, almost sheepishly. "But now my answer would be 'I love them all!' I would love to see these actors continue to play these characters in another movie—hopefully, people will want to see the adventure continue."

That said, Abrams isn't committed to the idea of reporting back to the Enterprise's bridge right away. "I never want to focus on any one thing. When I did ‘Felicity,’ I ended up creating ‘Alias,’ and Damon and I created ‘Lost’ because it was different from anything we had done before. So after Star Trek, I'd like to try something more intimate, but chances are whatever I end up doing next will have some level of special-effects work in it. Then again, two of my favorite movies are Ordinary People and The Philadelphia Story!" Hmmm…come to think of it, aren't we overdue for a Philadelphia Story remake? It could even take place in outer space.