“Star Trek” will be back in May with the 11th film in a pop culture franchise that has inspired one of the most impassioned fan followings imaginable. TV whiz J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Fringe”) is the director, but some fans have questioned the choice. After all, he was 2 months old when “Trek” launched its first mission in 1966, grew up loving that other universe, “Star Wars,” and despite his newfound passion for this Enterprise says “Trek” is “clearly in the shadow” of the George Lucas epic. Abrams recently talked about his deep-space mission.
As franchises move into new eras, it’s interesting to watch how they change -- or don’t change. With “Star Trek,” you seem to be pursuing a revival like we’ve seen with Batman and James Bond, which holds on to core mythology but recalibrates the tone.
I think I benefited because I came into this movie as someone who appreciated “Star Trek” but wasn’t an insane fanatic about it.
The disadvantage is, I didn’t know everything I needed to know immediately at the beginning and had to learn it. The advantage, though, is I could look at “Star Trek” as a whole a little bit more like a typical moviegoer would see it; it allowed me to seize the things that I felt were truly the most iconic and important aspects of the original series and yet not be serving the master and trying to be true to every arcane detail. It let me look at the things I knew were critical.
What are some of the things that made that “critical” list?
The characters were the most important thing in it. We needed to be true to the spirit of those characters. There were certain iconic things -- if you’re going to do “Star Trek,” you’ve got to do the Enterprise and it has to look like the Enterprise. . . . You have to do costumes that feel like the costumes people know. You have to be able to glance at it and know what that is. Even the text, the font of “Star Trek” has to look like what you know.
The phasers, the communicators, the Starfleet logo -- there are all these things that are the touchstones, the tenets of what makes “Star Trek” “Star Trek.” If you’re going to do this series, those are things you don’t mess with.
And yet they need to withstand a resolution that “Star Trek” has never had to withstand before. And I don’t just mean Imax -- though it will have to work there too -- but what I mean is that audiences are so savvy now and they’ve seen every iteration of “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” two separate versions of “Battlestar Galactica,” they’ve seen “Alien” and “Aliens,” they’ve seen countless science-fiction movies. And even worse, they’ve seen a movie such as “Galaxy Quest” that completely mocks the paradigm.
You know that no matter what you do, you’ll get an earful from hard-core fans.
The key is to appreciate that there are purists and fans of “Star Trek” who are going to be very vocal if they see things that aren’t what they want. But I can’t make this movie for readers of Nacelles Monthly who are only concerned with what the ship’s engines look like. They’re going to find something they hate no matter what I do.
And yet, the movie at its core is not only inspired by what has come before, it’s deeply true to what’s come before. The bottom line is we have different actors playing these parts and from that point on it’s literally not what they’ve seen before.
It will be evident when people see this movie that it is true to what [Gene] Roddenberry created and what those amazing actors did in the 1960s. At the same time, I think, it’s going to blow people’s minds because it’s a completely different experience.
In the footage you showed at the Paramount lot, I was really struck by the comedic touches.
Yeah, among the kind of anecdotal critiques I read online, some people said, “Oh, look at this, they’re trying to sex it up” by having Kirk in bed with a girl or Uhura undressing, and they said, “Oh, that’s not ‘Star Trek.’ ” Other people wrote, “Oh, there’s comedy in it, that’s not ‘Star Trek’ I know.”
Look, if you actually watch the show, that show was always pushing buttons all the time and was considered very sexy for its time. It had [a landmark] interracial kiss on television, and it was a show that was sexually adventurous. And it was very funny.
One of my favorite things about “Star Trek” wasn’t just the overt banter but the humor in that show about the relationships between the main characters and their reactions to the situations they would face .
Last time I saw you, you mentioned there would be a tribble in the movie. That’s fun.
Yes! There is a tribble in there. But you have to look for it. And there’s that other surprise I told you about, but please don’t write about that.
I won’t, I won’t, I promised. There’s plenty of other stuff to talk about. I’m fascinated by the challenge facing your captain. Chris Pine has the biggest acting dilemma of 2009: How do you play James T. Kirk without imitating William Shatner?
Totally. I think all of the actors have a similar challenge. We lucked out on “Star Trek” with the production designer, the costume designer, the visual effects, the composer -- everywhere you look on this production we lucked out and got the people doing the best work in the business. . . . But I have to say that the place where I could not be more grateful or amazed is with the cast. . . .
The reason that it works -- or the reason I believe it is working -- is that I and people who have seen it have walked away feeling that these are the characters. There’s a transition that happens. It’s a weird thing. It’s not that you will ever forget what DeForest Kelley did or George Takei or Shatner or any of them. . . .
It’s like when you look at James Bond. There are people out there that feel that Daniel Craig is it. And then there are people who say, “Oh, my God, Roger Moore, that’s the only James Bond who will ever work,” and people who think Sean Connery is clearly the one true Bond. The thing is, what Craig is doing now doesn’t undermine what those other actors did. They can coexist.
Is it your sense that you are winning over skeptical fans?
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 . . . will be willing to embrace the spirit of Roddenberry.
Can you talk a bit about the story of this film?
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.
How much did you go back to the various “Trek” shows, films, novels, etc. to research the mythology?
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.
“Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek” is sort of a classic Beatles vs. Stones debate for sci-fi fans. You have said you wanted to infuse your “Trek” revival with lessons from the George Lucas universe. Can you talk about that?
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. . . . 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.
How do you overcome that?
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 multicolored characters in it. That is something “Star Wars” did so well.
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. . . .
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.
For more of the Q&A;, visit latimes.com/herocomplex.