The future looks very familiar. Science fiction, by its nature, is a celebration of the new, but you wouldn’t know that by watching Hollywood’s space operas. “Star Trek,” for instance, is on the way back to theaters next summer in hopes that moviegoers will still want to boldly go where millions and millions have gone before. And it’s been more than 30 years since “Star Wars” made film history, but the Force is still very much with us -- whether we like it or not -- with a seventh film in theaters this past summer, one of the year’s bestselling video games and a new weekly animated television show (there’s also talk of a live-action series in the next year or two).
And that’s just the tip of the meteorite.
The “Terminator” and “Robocop” franchises are being revved up now for more mechanical-man mayhem, and classic films such as “Forbidden Planet” and “When Worlds Collide” are in the remake pipeline, while the new take on “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” starring Keanu Reeves, opens Dec. 12. Even “Battlestar Galactica,” which began as a small-screen “Star Wars” knockoff in the 1970s, has been revived with spectacular results and will break new ground in 2009 with the TV movie “Caprica” on Sci Fi, with a series to follow.
The question, though, is why does Hollywood keep looking to the past? “Science fiction should be about ideas and what it means to be human, it should always be about the new and the challenging,” William Shatner said on a recent afternoon as he sipped a Starbucks coffee and watched traffic zoom past his Ventura Boulevard office. So why does Hollywood keep putting its money in the same old Enterprise? “ ‘Star Trek’ connected with so many people for so long, and ‘Star Wars’ is the same way,” he said. “There’s a thrill for fans to see the heroes they know.”
Shatner won’t be one of those heroes in the new “Star Trek” film -- a sour point for the actor who played Capt. James T. Kirk on television and in seven films and had hoped for a cameo -- but Paramount Pictures is absolutely hoping that the new film, directed by J.J. Abrams (“Mission: Impossible III,” TV’s “Alias” and “Lost”) will have the warp power needed for a 21st century “Star Trek” franchise built around young stars such as Chris Pine (Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock). Those ambitions go a long way to explaining the Hollywood fixation on tried-and-true properties.
It’s difficult to find a sci-fi project in recent years that wasn’t based on an earlier film or television show, although “Minority Report,” “Signs” and “Children of Men” did buck the trend.
Ronald D. Moore, creator of the modern “Battlestar Galactica,” said that commercial priorities push risk-adverse studios toward properties with established names, but he said it’s wrong to presume that artistic ambition is stifled by remaking the familiar. “Battlestar” is proof of that, certainly. Moore’s version premiered as a miniseries in 2003 and took the core concept of the creaky 1970s show -- a ragtag fleet of humans fleeing an implacable foe of their own making, the sentient machines called Cylons -- and added dark layers of complexity with themes of religion, government-sanctioned torture, class struggle, terrorism and bioethics.
“In the same way that Shakespeare’s plays can be revisited again and again in new ways and settings, with things like ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’ there is enough of the core mythology there that you can change and adapt all the things around it for something very new and worthwhile,” Moore said. “New generations can make it their own. Strong new interpretations build on the past, they don’t repeat it.”
He added that Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” marked a point where science fiction in Hollywood reached a different level. “There was enough there that it appealed to multiple generations and influenced creators. Some of those creators want to go back and work with these properties they grew up loving.”
Perhaps, but returning again and again to the same ground leaves new frontiers unexplored. There’s also the risk of franchises becoming calcified, campy or too self-referencing. And there is the simple matter of fatigue, and not just with fans. Roddenberry had no idea he was creating a pop-culture behemoth when he pitched television executives the idea of “ ‘Wagon Train’ to the stars” in 1964, but the colossal impact of “Star Trek” left the creator feeling stifled as well. “I have felt many times trapped by ‘Star Trek,’ ” he once said. “It cost me dearly.”
Hollywood’s sci-fi trinity
Because of intensely networked fans and all those fans-turned-creators, the galactic trio of “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica” are now tied into one another more than ever. “Battlestar’s” Moore, a huge “Trek” fan through the years, said the military life and quest nature of classic “Trek” helped shape his show, and Moore himself was a key producer on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager.” And, of course, the airing of the original “Battlestar” in 1978 was clearly intended to draft off the popularity of “Star Wars,” which was released a year earlier.
Moore gleefully visited the set of the new “Trek” film and Abrams even confided that there is “a shout-out” to Moore in the film that “Battlestar” fans will absolutely catch. More than that, Abrams, who grew up as more of an intense “Star Wars” loyalist than a “Trek” follower, said the George Lucas universe and its visual sensibilities were key in the new “Trek,” while the battle scenes are influenced by the gritty dogfights of the new “Battlestar.”
The new “Trek” was written by the “Transformers” screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wanted to take the combat scenes away from the large-ship, “submarine style” of combat choreography in past Starfleet movies and introduce more of the fighter-pilot ethos of “Battlestar” and “Star Wars.” The special effects for “Trek,” by the way, are the handiwork of the Lucas-founded effects house, Industrial Light & Magic.
“Star Wars” still stands apart from the other two long-lasting franchises for several reasons -- most notably, Lucas is still the wizard behind the curtain. But with the launch of “The Clone Wars” animated series on Cartoon Network and hints dropped by Lucas that he’d like to add a live-action weekly series in the next few years, the filmmaker is at least borrowing the “Trek” model of isolating in on certain time periods in his saga as the settings for episodic television.
Frank Oz, the man who gave voice to Yoda, said “Star Wars” endures because of the imagination of Lucas, and he doubts very much that the filmmaker frets when critics say that the saga has lost some luster.
“George has created this story of good and evil and these characters that stand up as symbols through the years,” said Oz, himself a director (“Bowfinger,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). “Some people say that the acting isn’t nuanced or that the dialogue is too broad. But look at what’s on the screen, the acting and dialogue fit what’s going on. The story has connected with people all over the world. George knows what he’s doing.”
Oz said one of his favorite touches in the “Star Wars” films was the “lived-in” look of the universe, with pitted spaceships and battered droids and none of the untouched gleam of most prior sci-fi films. “You see that now in all the films” -- and certainly in “Battlestar” -- “and when I see that I always think, ‘They got that from George.’ ”
All this talk of the great sci-fi franchises commingling (although, to be precise, “Star Wars” is more of a fantasy film than pure science fiction and it takes place “a long time ago,” not in the future) will not sit well with some purist fans. Abrams, for instance, took some heat for daring to say that he wanted to import anything from “Star Wars” to “Trek,” and he has been careful in public comments to modulate that early statement -- and he’s always careful to refer to fans as “Trekkers,” not the unfashionable “Trekkies.”
“These are people who really care about these characters and these stories and the details,” Abrams said. “But I have to tell you, I’m not going to make a movie that tries to make every hard-core Trekker happy, because it’s not possible. I’m making a movie for fans of movies. I want it to be an adventure and fun and sexy and scary and epic and intimate and everything. I feel a great responsibility to these characters and everything that has come before, but I need to make a film that is not paralyzed by all of that.”
Each of the three franchises faces new challenges. Critics have not been kind to Lucas, and many longtime “Star Wars” fans were aghast at the flimsy characters and disquieting flippancy in “The Clone Wars,” both the movie and the series -- the presence of a sidekick who refers to Anakin Skywalker as “Sky-guy” isn’t exactly enhancing the gravitas of a franchise that once aspired to be a melding of Arthurian legend and Flash Gordon zip. There’s no need to even mention Jar Jar Binks.
“Star Trek,” meanwhile, left television in 2005 when “Star Trek: Enterprise” fell into a ratings black hole, a whimpering end after logging 18 consecutive years with at least one of its permutations on the air. The new “old” crew will have to prove itself at theaters -- no small feat, especially since this franchise is attempting to pull a somewhat retro-future look to fit its time frame (it follows a young Kirk and company in their Starfleet Academy days and shortly after). The biggest challenge may be for Pine, who needs to play Kirk, not imitate Shatner.
“That is exactly what he’s done,” Abrams said. “None of the actors are doing impersonations of the original cast. If they did, it would be a disaster.”
“Battlestar” has to find a way to capture an audience that has never matched its acclaim. The Peabody- and Emmy-wining series, often called the best-written show on television, returns on Jan. 16 with the first of its final 10 episodes. A two-hour TV movie directed by star Edward James Olmos will follow that and then, in 2010, the prequel series “Caprica” will continue the tale of humans and Cylons. Unlike “Galactica,” that new series will not have a ragtag fleet of survivors fleeing the Cylons in space -- it begins its story before the massive attack that nearly wipes out the humans, which means Moore will have to find a way to replace the inherent urgency of the current series.
Orci, the “Trek” film writer, said that “Star Wars,” with the presence of Lucas, has largely stayed the same since the 1970s, while “Battlestar,” with the arrival of Moore and the reboot of 2004, could hardly be more dramatically different from the less-nuanced 1970s series starring Lorne Greene. “We’re trying to do something in the middle, something that holds on to everything that makes ‘Star Trek’ what it is but also take it into a new place. One thing about the original show was its inherent optimism, and we very much wanted that in this movie. This is a future you would want to live in. And we hope it’s a future people want to watch.”