J.J. Abrams: ‘Star Trek’ must escape the shadow of ‘Star Wars’


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EXCLUSIVE: This is the second part of an interview with J.J. Abrams about his cinematic voyages aboard the Starship Enterprise. Today he talks about his concerns that ‘Star Trek’ is ‘clearly in the shadow’ of George Lucas. He also addresses premature talk of a ‘Trek’ sequel: ‘I’m in the middle of lunch and someone asks, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ ‘

You can read part one here.

Star Trek’ is back. The 11th film in the storied franchise returns to theaters in May and this time the director is J.J. Abrams, who was just 2 months old when the original television series premiered in 1966. Abrams has conceded that he was never an impassioned fan of ‘Trek’ but his take on the mythology promises to be intriguing considering his television success with ‘Alias,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Fringe’ as well as his work as director of ‘Mission Impossible III.’ He talked to Hero Complex about navigating his movie through the neutral zone that lies between hard-core ‘Trek’ fans and average summer moviegoers.


GB: Is it your sense that you are winning over skeptical fans to this point?

JJA: You know, I would think that especially fans of ‘Star Trek,’ which is an optimistic universe, a universe about working together and the possibility of the human endeavor, you would think that people who appreciate that wonderful portrait of the future and that universe would be open to literally going to a place no one has ever gone before. I’m very optimistic that fans of the show, even the purists, will be willing to embrace the spirit of Roddenberry and once they see these actors doing this extraordinary work, I think they will not have to intellectualize it all, they’ll simply enjoy the experience. It’s a cliche now to say ‘Where no man has gone before’ because it has been the vernacular now for more than 40 years but if you actually think about it -- and actually remind yourself that we live on this planet and we are creatures inhabiting in this space with undefined limits and with technology that will invariably come -- ‘Star Trek’ is positing a future that is incredibly inspiring. If you can get past the cliche and make it real and relevant, there’s something very exciting about that. This is not ‘Star Wars’ which happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is us and our future.

GB: Can you talk a bit about the story of this film?

JJA: This story is ultimately about a guy who is full of unbelievable potential but he is aimless, he is lost. He ends up finding a path that takes him beyond his wildest dreams. It helps him find his purpose. That’s a great story in any situation, in any culture. There is something about that spirit of innovation, collaboration, possibility, adventure and optimism that is inherent in what ‘Star Trek’ was.

GB: How much did you go back to the various ‘Trek’ shows, films, novels, etc., to research the mythology? I imagine at some point sifting through all of it would become a counterproductive exercise.

JJA: I looked at a lot of the episodes of all the series that came after the original ‘Star Trek’ but because we are focusing on the original series I didn’t really need to know every episode of ‘Deep Space Nine’ or ‘Voyager’ or even ‘Enterprise.’ But, yeah, I watched episodes, I read up a lot, I watched the movies, I talked to people, whether it was our ‘Trek’ consultant or one of the two writers [Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci] about what it would mean to do what we wanted to do. We have one producer, Bob [Orci], who is a complete Trekker and another in Bryan Burk who had never seen an episode of the show ever. And it was a great balance. We could make sure it passed the test of the ultimate fan and the ultimate neophyte and make sure that it was equally entertaining to both parties.

GB: It’s awkward to talk about sequels for a film that has not even been released but there is such a Hollywood emphasis on tent pole properties that it’s impossible to ignore. So, given that, where do you see yourself going if the movie this May is the success you hope for?

JJA: I’d rather not be presumptuous that this will go on -- I mean we’re still finishing up this movie. I have to say I sort of feel like I’m in the middle of lunch and someone asks, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ I have no idea. But I gotta say that the idea of seeing this cast and these characters live on and go on further adventures -- it’d be a shame not to do. Obviously the story would need to be great. But the beauty of what Roddenberry created is there is such an abundance of opportunities with these characters and [deciding] which elements of the original series we want to revisit. There’s this great opportunity there for further stories and I would definitely be involved in that. Whether I’m directing or producing, whether Bob or Alex are writing, obviously all that remains to be seen. Paramount is hungry to get going on that, but we’re still finishing up the first one.


GB: I was struck by the aerial platform scene that you showed in the preview of footage from the movie. It was such a high-adrenaline sequence and it had a frenetic combat style we’ve never seen in a ‘Trek’ production before. But it also gave you a spot for two grand ‘Trek’ traditions -- putting a sword in the hand of Mr. Sulu and killing off an overeager red-shirt.

JJA: Oh cool. Well, that was very much a homage to the stuff that Sulu had done on the original TV show. We thought that to make a movie like this and not give Sulu his opportunity to a hold a sword --well, it just felt like we had to do it. And it was one of the things that was incredibly important to me was that this film -- in addition to being character-centric and having the classic ‘Trek’ debates and rapport between the characters -- that it also be a movie that actually realized the promise of the adventure that ‘Trek’ often had but didn’t always have the resources to pull off. We wanted the visual action that was always promised but that you didn’t get a chance to see.

GB: It’s interesting that when ‘Trek’ did get the resources with the Robert Wise film the choice was made to go to a sort of epic, cosmic feel, like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ instead of the rollicking spirit from the television series.

JJA: It is interesting. And Doug Trumbull did the visual effects for that ‘Trek’ as well as ‘2001’ and there was that feeling to it. It was definitely a more slow-moving, epic feel. It’s a slow movie but some people love it.

GB: ‘Star Wars’ vs. ‘Star Trek’ is sort of a classic Beatles vs. Stones debate for sci-fi fans of a certain age. You have said you wanted to infuse your ‘Trek’ revival with some lessons learned from the George Lucas universe. Can you talk about that?

JJA: Well, I’m just a fan of ‘Star Wars.’ As a kid, ‘Star Wars’ was much more my thing than ‘Star Trek’ was. If you look at the last three ‘Star Wars’ films and what technology allowed them to do, they covered so much terrain in terms of design, locations, characters, aliens, ships -- so much of the spectacle has been done and it seems like every aspect has been covered, whether it’s geography or design of culture or weather system or character or ship type. Everything has been tapped in those movies. The challenge of doing ‘Star Trek’ -- despite the fact that it existed before ‘Star Wars’ -- is that we are clearly in the shadow of what George Lucas has done.

GB: How do you overcome that?


JJA: The key to me is to not ever try to outdo them because it’s a no-win situation. Those movies are so extraordinarily rendered that it felt to me that the key to ‘Star Trek’ was to go from the inside-out: Be as true to the characters as possible, be as real and as emotional and as exciting as possible and not be distracted by the specter of all that the ‘Star Wars’ film accomplished. For instance, we needed to establish that there are aliens in this universe and yet I didn’t want it to feel like every scene had four new multi-colored characters in it. That is something ‘Star Wars’ did so well with its amazing creature design. The question is how do you subtly introduce the idea that there are different species here. And to also do it differently than the [‘Trek’] TV shows, which basically had someone wearing a mask sitting in a chair [in the background]. It was the balance of doing what the story needed us to do but also not feeling like we were trying to rip off or out-do what Lucas did.

GB: It is a challenge. There’s an early scene in your film where you have a crowded bar, music is playing and your callow young hero walks in, rubs shoulders with aliens, and then ends up in a brawl. You have to know that a chunk of your audience will be thinking about the ‘Star Wars’ cantina scene...

JJA: That cantina scene is obviously one of the classic scenes in ‘Star Wars’ and it was such a wonderful introduction to how amazing, how diverse and how full of possibility this ‘Star Wars’ universe was going to be. In the subsequent films, especially the last three, so many scenes have that feeling, that they are just expanding and expanding the worlds. That was definitely something where I felt the burden of ‘My God, they’ve done it all.’ And the challenge is how do you do it where it feels real and meaningful and not like you’re borrowing from someone else. That’s just one of our challenges.

READ PART ONE: J.J. Abrams on tribbles and the ‘Galaxy Quest’ problem

-- Geoff Boucher


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CREDITS: J.J. Abrams photo by Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times. All ‘Star Trek’ photos courtesy of Paramount.