Enterprise culture: Star Trek Into Darkness
J.J. Abrams continues to breathe new life into the Star Trek franchise, writes James Mottram
To boldly go … that's the maxim of the Star Trek universe. But even the late Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), the creator of this iconic sci-fi series, might've been surprised by J.J. Abrams' 2009 cinematic reboot - and not just for its pulsating action and successful recasting of the crew of the USS Enterprise.
If playing out the storyline in an alternate timeline to the original TV series and movies was brave, so was the US$150 million shelled out by Paramount - far more than the studio had spent on any of the 10 preceding Star Trek films.
It was a gamble that paid off - the film took US$385 million around the world - and, with the characters all set up, you might think its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would be a hit in waiting. But Abrams, 46, had no intention of believing the hard work was already done. "Sequels often make mistakes in assuming that you care and that you know that world and the characters. We had to approach it as a stand-alone movie, where you didn't have to see the first movie to enjoy this one," he says.
So Abrams and his writers - Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman - didn't rush back into space. While Lindelof was overseeing the final seasons of Abrams' TV show Lost - and co-writing Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus - his co-writers worked on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Cowboys and Aliens. Abrams, meanwhile, wrote and directed 2011's summer hit Super 8.
Still, there's no doubt where their loyalties lie. " Star Trek is why I wanted to be a writer," says Orci. "The rest of the franchises can go die as far as I'm concerned."
While fans can rest assured that Star Trek is in safe hands, there's always a pressure to deliver a sequel that's bigger, louder and, of course, bolder. This time, the crew of the Enterprise are faced with a rogue Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who launches a brazen attack on the Federation before hot-footing it to Qo'noS (pronounced "Kronos"), the home planet of the feared Klingons.
Chris Pine, who plays the Enterprise's Captain James T. Kirk, says this new mission marks a moment of maturity for his hot-headed character. "The first film was about a rebellious young man whose strengths were flouting orders and he got the captain's chair prematurely," he says.
"We see in the second film all that self-assuredness and leading from the gut he believes is very selfless and the mark of a good leader. But it is a selfish way to go about business. His journey is one towards humility and Benedict's character, John Harrison, is the one who is able to break him down to the point of not knowing if he's good enough to do anything."
It was Lindelof who suggested British actor Cumberbatch as the villain, having seen him in the BBC show Sherlock playing a modern version of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective. "I watched Sherlock and my jaw hit the floor," says Abrams. "I couldn't believe this guy."
The actor, who will portray WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon's upcoming film, The Fifth Estate, is well aware of his screen image. "I'm sometimes perceived as being cerebral rather than corporeal." Yet he resolved to turn Harrison into a fighting machine. "It was very important to me that he had an incredibly strong physical presence."
Every day, Cumberbatch ate 4,000 calories and exercised for two hours - going "up four suit sizes at one point" - to help turn Harrison into a "one-man weapon of mass destruction". But this, Abrams says, is all he's packing: "I love that this character is unadorned. He's not wearing some ridiculous costume - a head-dress or a mask or a cowl or tattoos or crazy facial hair. That to me was my favourite thing; in a movie that has so much bombast and craziness, there's this incredible simplicity - a man in a black shirt being as intimidating, frightening and compelling as he is."
The film is far more than merely Kirk versus Harrison, though; returnees include Simon Pegg (as engineer Scotty), Karl Urban (as medical officer Dr McCoy) and Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin (as Enterprise regulars Uhura, Sulu and Chekov respectively). And, of course, Mr Spock, with those distinct pointy ears, the yin to Kirk's yang. Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, says it didn't take long to slip back into character. "There were a few days early on, where we had some re-acclimating to do, but once we did, it was like putting on an old pair of shoes. Or ears."
This time, there's an addition to the crew - Alice Eve's weapons specialist Dr Carol Marcus, a character who last appeared (as played by Bibi Besch) in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - for many hardcore Trekkers the best of the previous films.
This aside, what makes Star Trek Into Darkness a successful sequel is not the increased explosions, decibels or even the spectacular 3-D Imax visuals, it's the inter-personal interactions. Take Spock's relationship with Uhura. The half-human, half-Vulcan man of logic was never a lover in the original TV show but - remember - this is set along an alternate timeline. "Our first movie surprised people, in that they [Spock and Uhura] were in a relationship at all," says Quinto. "The second surprises them because they're not particularly content or settled. I love that dynamic of it."
Then there's his testy friendship with Kirk, who - in the film's opening sequence - breaks regulations to save Spock from certain death in a volcano, only to see his friend report the irregularity to their superior. "I think what's interesting about these two characters is that they're two halves of the same man," says Pine, "and I think we all struggle with finding parity and balance between mind and body. That struggle between these two men resembles our own journey in a way."
Naturally, despite Star Trek Into Darkness just hitting cinemas now, talk is already turning to a possible third film under Abrams. "There have been no formal discussions," the director says, "but the writers and the producers and I have talked about casual things that could be fun for the next chapter."
With hints in Star Trek Into Darkness about a forthcoming war between the Klingons and the Federation, the seeds have been sown - although Abrams may not be in the chair. As just about every sci-fi geek out there now knows, he's taking over the rival Star Wars franchise, directing Episode VII.
His new project is far removed from Star Trek, Abrams says. "They have always felt, for me, wildly different realms. Although there are definitely stars in both, the specifics of the universe are so disparate and the themes, the history, the characters, the whole approach feels different. It is like making two human dramas and going, 'Both films have bipeds, both have people driving cars and live-in structures'. They couldn't be more different, these two worlds."
From re-booting Star Trek to re-birthing Star Wars … the director truly is going where no man has gone before.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens on Thursday