Freaking the Geeks

Lost and Cloverfield creator J.J. Abrams explains how his Star Trek reboot will boldly go where the franchise has never gone before.

J.J. Abrams has just called a phaser a “blaster”. To anyone not presently wearing Vulcan ears it’s a moot point, but the director knows he’s slipped up. “Phasers,” he stresses, sensing the Starfleet bloggers ready at the torpedoes. “God forbid I don’t say ‘phasers’.”

It’s a telling remark, because the man charged with reinvigorating the Star Trek series is coming at the latest film — number 11 if you’re still counting — not so much from the final frontier but a galaxy far, far away.

“I was never really a huge Star Trek fan,” Abrams confesses. “I enjoyed it but it didn’t grab me the way Star Wars did. I felt this was an opportunity to do a treatment of Star Trek that felt like it had that sort of dynamic and passion and excitement and adventure.”

What the Spock? Before gasping Trekkers reignite that oldest of sci-fi fan-boy rivalries, however, know that Abrams is no hired hack. You might even say Star Trek was a formative teen moment — as a 13-year-old he’d sat in with his dad, a Paramount executive, and watched in wonder as the studio held a first screening of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Thirty years on and that kid — now the wildly successful producer of Alias, Lost, and Cloverfield — has come full circle, the memory wired into his subconscious as he stepped in to the director’s chair. “Star Trek is just something we’re sort of born into,” he muses, “just knowing it in our genetic code.”

The problem, at least as the studio saw it, was that Star Trek had evolved into such an esoteric fan pursuit that its appeal for a wider pop audience was gone. Abrams confers. “Most people don’t really feel familiar with it,” he says, “or if they do I think that they judge it as that ‘geek thing’. What we’re doing is going to disprove that quite a bit.”

Enter 2009’s model, entitled simply Star Trek: a sexier, rock’n’roll enterprise that’s cast younger actors to portray the reckless days before Kirk, Spock and crew beamed aboard their maiden voyage. It’s space, Jim — but not as we know it.

Star Trek was often a series that discussed, in a very intellectual, sort of didactic way, the conflicts at hand and the politics of things,” Abrams explains. “I feel like it’s important that Star Trek have a spark, have energy and be exciting and emotional and terrifying and heartbreaking; you know, a real rollercoaster ride.”

If the breathless, action-infused preview of the film is anything to go by — not to mention a prevalent comedic streak — Abrams may be looking at the hit that sends Star Trek into warp speed alongside George Lucas’ saga. Still, the director insists it’s faithful to the spirit and continuity of the series. “The beauty of the movie,” he offers, “is that it’s a film with great action and great adventure and then real discussion and real thought. It bounces back and forth, which is I hope what makes it exciting and still true to what [Gene] Roddenberry created.”

Rest assured, among series newcomers Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock) and Simon Pegg (Scotty), there’s a familiar face guaranteed to please the old guard: Leonard Nimoy, who appears from the future to give his younger self some career tips. “The first time I was directing him was absurd,” Abrams recalls, awestruck. “I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing — how can I possibly give this man direction?’ Working with him was one of the greatest gifts in my life.”

May the Force be with them…

April 2009

Originally published in Rolling Stone

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