In the same way we take comfort in knowing that Spock really does have emotions, be assured that there are days when J. J. Abrams walks onto a film set and shits his pants.
“Sure! Oh, yeah, yeah,” the filmmaker says, calling the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles only days after the U.K. premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness (opening today [May 16]). “There have been a number of occasions when I’ve looked around and seen, you know, dozens of people in elaborate makeup and costumes and an entire crew of technical people and everybody’s looking at me to sort of know what to do next, and I have these moments of being zapped, outside looking in, and I think: ‘What the hell have I done and how are we ever going to make this work?’ ”
Fittingly, he pulls out a story from the making of his high-stakes bid to reboot the Star Trek franchise in 2009. It was a mission already fraught with unthinkable pressures and the looming prospect of pissing off the world’s most pedantic fan base. Now Abrams was standing there wondering if his massive project was basically just kinda lame.
“There was a scene on the Narada, on the Romulan ship,” he recalls, “and it’s Eric Bana and the whole crew, and they were all bald with these crazy tattoos on their faces, and they all had this elaborate, long, flowing wardrobe, and I just remember looking at them in this one moment and feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, this looks like a boy-band video.’ ”
Even worse, the still fairly green director—his sole feature at this point was Mission: Impossible III—suddenly realized that the only other guy in the scene was yet another cue ball, in this case Capt. Robau of the ill-fated USS Kelvin. Which might not sound so terrible on the face of things, but this is Abrams’s irrational panic attack, not ours. He remembers trying to remain cool “while my brain was spinning” and furiously looking for any way to make his $150-million movie look better than male-pattern ’N Sync in deep space.
“I added a line that we ended up cutting where I actually have this guy comment on the fact that he was bald,” he says, signalling that he’s quite aware of how crazy it all sounds. “I mean, it was this whole fucking thing,” he goes on with a sigh, “but the point is, there are moments where, like, I suddenly realize, ‘This is insane and I have to figure out a way to go with it and make it work.’ ”
As we all know, Abrams and his creative partners at Bad Robot Productions ultimately went with it and made it work. Along with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, they gave us—overrepresented bald guys aside—a pleasingly clever alternate-universe origin story featuring, most memorably, a Spock with anger-management problems and a bar-fighting JD version of James T. Kirk.
Everybody was happy, and the box office rolled in to the tune of some $400 million worldwide. In case you’ve forgotten or, more likely, never noticed, the previous attempt to put Gene Roddenberry’s epic saga on the big screen—with the limp Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002—also produced its biggest bomb, and the film barely made more than its budget. Meanwhile, successive TV spinoffs like Star Trek: Enterprise were also tanking. Except on the convention circuit, Star Trek appeared to be pretty much over.
“I remember in 2007, when we started working on the first one, people were like: ‘Why are you working on that? It’s this moribund franchise,’ ” Abrams says. ”And I remember feeling that, you know, there was a whole lot of life still left in it, but even more so because I had this gut feeling that there was a version of Star Trek that would appeal to me.”
“Listen, that team is successful for a reason. That’s all I can say,” actor John Cho had told the Straight a few days earlier. “They’re good at making movies and TV shows and that’s why they’re bajillionaires.” Cho, who has gone from being recognized as Kumar’s pal Harold to being more recognized as helmsman Hikaru Sulu of the USS Enterprise, was calling from San Francisco, the home of Starfleet headquarters itself and the location of two of the new film’s major set pieces.
We are, in fact, brought back to Earth in a number of ways with Star Trek Into Darkness, and not just plot-wise. When Starfleet Command weathers a devastating attack by the film’s enigmatic villain, John Harrison—given the kind of awesome Brit-thesp interpretation by Benedict Cumberbatch that sends a career into warp drive—we are plunged into a story involving secret weaponry, black budgets, covert ops, the morality of extrajudicial killing, and even the sub rosa motives of Starfleet itself. The strange new world being explored this time, it turns out, is our own.
Of both films, Abrams says: “What we tried to do was take the thing that everyone loved and apply it to a more relevant version of itself and give it a little bit more of a pulse, give it a little bit more action, give it a little bit more reality and truth.” With Star Trek Into Darkness, “the idea of a bad guy who was essentially a homegrown terrorist, who is among us, and attacks—it felt like the most scary version of the story to tell.”
“And I feel like the thing that great genre filmmaking and storytelling has always done is taken issues of now and told them through allegory and made them palatable for larger audiences,” Abrams continues. “But, you know, there are themes in the movie that were important to us: the idea of questioning authority, the idea that when the task you’re given is morally questionable, what do you do? When protecting others, especially family, means making the ultimate sacrifice, what do you do? When you feel that desperate need for revenge and blood lust, what do you do?”
If this all sounds a little heavy—relax. Star Trek Into Darkness was shot in 3-D, partly on IMAX cameras, which means there’s even less of what Abrams calls “the static, didactic feeling” of the original TV series and an increased commitment to the action and spectacle—not to mention the vertiginous camerawork and seizure-baiting lens flare—of the previous film. As Cho put it: “I got out of our screening and said, ‘I think I’ve literally watched thousands and thousands of events.’ So many things happen. Maybe it felt that way a little because we didn’t have to introduce the characters in the way that we did with the last movie, and we just got right into it. I mean, that opening sequence alone, I was exhausted from.”
The sequence in question involves a visually sumptuous visit to a bright-fuchsia Class M planet, Spock confronting death inside a volcano, and an incident involving the Prime Directive that will set the stick-in-his-ass Vulcan and what-me-worry Kirk against each other for the rest of the movie. As Abrams correctly intuited with the first film, a 21st-century Star Trek needed a big visual upgrade, a hipper sensibility—Kirk, it should be noted, listens to the Beastie Boys in the new film, on vinyl—and just the right number of smirky references to the canon. (And on that note: hello, Tribble!) Most important of all, however, was that central relationship between the captain and his first officer.
“It’s always fun when there’s a big action set piece to do,” Abrams says, “but the truth is that those scenes are less exciting than the scenes of just people talking in a space, in a room, in an area. And that’s because those scenes are the ones that are really about the more critical choreography and the more subtle stuff that gets to play out. I always knew this movie was going to be a massive, crazy challenge, and it was. I mean, to do a futuristic San Francisco, to show our Earth in jeopardy, to go to two disparate planets, to have action sequences on both, to do a whole sequence of the Enterprise tumbling through space towards Earth—just everywhere I looked there were things where I went, ‘Damn, each of these is going to be a huge full-time job.’ ”
“But,” he continues, “the truly Herculean tasks felt like the scenes between characters having conversations. That was because they were the most relatable scenes, the scenes where the comedy or the drama or the terror or confusion or whatever the thing is that you’re playing, that’s the thing that we all know.”
The most resonant moments in Star Trek Into Darkness—woven between gargantuan action sequences that largely play out on real sets and not some digital scrim—are the smallest: Kirk rolling his eyes at a lovers’ tiff between Spock and Uhura, for instance, while the three of them sneak onto the Klingon home planet; Scotty tendering his resignation to his hurt but bullish captain; or the glance that passes between Kirk and Harrison as the two of them, in uneasy alliance, hurtle through a debris field in rocket suits. By the end of its often rampaging 133 minutes, you feel like you know these people a little better, which is something that takes us right back to the essential brilliance of Roddenberry’s construct, with characters, in Abrams’s words, that “were wonderfully specific” and “perfectly balanced”.
That said, there’s always room for more improvement. “I still don’t think I did enough lens flares,” Abrams reckons. Zing!