The voice on the phone from London, a few days after the world premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness, speaks in a stream of staccato phrases, a brisk torrent of ideas that have no time for commas. When you talk to director J.J. Abrams, you can almost hear the universe expanding. Officially, he’s promoting the sequel to his triumphant 2009 reboot of Star Trek. Now George Lucas and Disney have placed Abrams at the helm of Star Wars: Episode VII, so this prince of geeks—who had his first encounter with Hollywood at 16, when he was hired to edit Steven Spielberg’s teenage Super 8 archive—is poised to inherit Spielberg’s mantle as Hollywood’s master of the extraterrestrial universe.
According to the laws of fanboy physics, it should not be possible that one man could command both Star Wars and Star Trek—two heritage franchises from rival sci-fi galaxies as distinct as church and state. You’d almost expect it to cause a rupture in the space-time continuum. “There’s no meta strategy to this, no Machiavellian plan,” says the 46-year-old Abrams. “It was simply two opportunities to get involved in two disparate film series that are bigger than all of us. I don’t feel any kind of Coke vs. Pepsi thing about it. It seems there’s enough bandwidth for both of these very different stories to coexist. I feel incredibly lucky to be involved in either of them.”
Spoken like a Starfleet ambassador. The moral and aesthetic hemispheres of Star Trek and Star Wars are, of course, polar opposites. Spun from the DNA of the late Gene Roddenberry’s cult TV series, Star Trek is a secular, open-ended franchise fuelled by the comic friction of an interspecies ensemble, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Star Wars is a closed universe, a generational saga on a Wagnerian scale, rooted in myth and mystical forces.
“They feel as different as you could possibly imagine,” says Abrams. “It’s almost like saying these are two movies that take place on Earth, and don’t you think they’re similar? Because they’re about bipeds and vehicles and people living in structures.” Abrams claims he has “exactly the same approach” to Star Trek and Star Wars: Episode VII, which is due in 2015: “You ask yourself, ‘Who is the story about? What makes me love them?’ It’s all about connecting to the heart and soul of your characters. Once you do that, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, what the time period is, what baggage you have coming into it. All that matters is that you’ve found a way to emotionally engage the audience so you have a proxy going forward.”
As director of the Star Trek reboot, Abrams arrived with negative baggage. “When I tried to watch the show as a kid,” he recalls, “there was a talky, somewhat static vibe that I got from it. I felt it was cold and impersonal and very intellectual. I don’t know if I had the brainpower to appreciate it the way my friends did.” That sounds diplomatically disingenuous, coming from a polymath who grew up as the precocious child of two Hollywood producers, scripted three studio movies before he was 30, created Alias, co-created Lost, composed music for half a dozen TV shows, made his feature-directing debut with Mission: Impossible III, and followed Star Trek with Super 8, an alien monster movie produced by the same Steven Spielberg whose juvenilia he’d edited as a teenager.
Asked about influences, Abrams rhymes off an eclectic canon that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Bond films—and the early work of David Cronenberg. But like any film geek of his generation, he points to Star Wars, which he saw at 11, as tranformative: “Looking back on my childhood, I have a list of things that are massively important to me. Without question, Star Wars was on that list, and Star Trek was not.”
Yet that put him in an ideal position to re-engineer Star Trek for an audience beyond its sturdy fan base. Recruiting a fresh young cast for the 2009 reboot, he juiced the franchise by fusing its threads of philosophical and moral debate to “a more visceral action-adventure experience—adding excitement and conflict and pursuit and urgency and battle.” Then he adds: “If it were exclusively those things, it would be an empty, mind-numbing experience. But to combine those two is like the secret sauce of any movie I’ve loved. Which is that there’s a certain level of comedy, of heart, of intellect and action.”
Whatever he did worked. The Star Trek reboot grossed $386 million worldwide, six times more the previous movie in the series. Curiously, though, both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises have fared poorly overseas. They’ve typically earned about two-thirds of their revenue in North America, unlike the superhero blockbusters, which tend to gross more abroad than at home. Abrams sees that changing. He points to Batman Begins (2005), which launched Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Like previous Batman fare, it didn’t perform well overseas, but with the next two Dark Knight films, the foreign market took off. “One could only dream of a success like that,” says Abrams, “and I’m not assuming we’ll have anything in that realm. But we’ve been on this press tour, to Moscow and Sydney and Berlin and Paris and Tokyo, and the response has been 20 times as potent as with the first movie.”
Taking a cue from The Dark Knight Rises, Abrams stretched the Star Trek canvas by shooting in a hybrid of IMAX and 35 mm. He also converted the footage to 3D, a format Nolan has resisted. And though this 12th Star Trek movie is by no means in the same heavyweight class as The Dark Knight triology, Abrams has cranked up the gravitas, which is entirely embodied by one man—an intergalactic terrorist played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) with a Brit baritone and a thespian air of withering contempt that conjures a young Alan Rickman on steroids. Superpowered, physically and intellectually, he’s the kind of über-villain who relishes sucking the oxygen out of every scene.
For Abrams, the movie is a balancing act, “trying to go boldly where no one’s gone before, and embrace everything that has come before.” True to form, the Enterprise crew—James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zöe Saldana) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)—remain a buoyant dream team of diversity and good vibes. And in a blockbuster landscape crowded by scenarios of apocalyptic doom and brooding superheroes, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t that dark. “The title might be a bit misleading,” agrees Abrams. “There’s a darkening approach to a lot of films, and it was important to us that the darkness be fun and funny and emotional, and not feel grim.”
In case anyone mistakes Abrams for a lightweight, however, he cites Cronenberg alongside Spielberg as one of his heroes. Few people would put those “bergs” in the same pantheon, but when the Canadian auteur’s name comes up, Abrams lights up like a classic fanboy.
“I’ve seen all his films,” says the director, who cast Cronenberg as a mad scientist in Alias. “I learned from him that it’s possible to combine relatable characters you know to be true with absolutely insane, hyperreal terror that feels believable. His obsession about where science and technology meet the flesh is really at the crux of what moviemaking is about—it’s a mechanical, scientific thing, but at the core it’s dealing with the heart and the soul. I appreciate not only the grace and thoughtfulness of his filmmaking, but that he grapples with the stuff of nightmares and the stuff of wonderment and oddity.”
Cronenberg hasn’t made a big sci-fi movie since The Fly (1986), so might Abrams consider producing one for him? “Yes,” he says. “I had a meeting with him five months ago where I was essentially begging him to work with Bad Robot [Abrams’s production company] and make a movie together.”
As for that other crazy Canadian, the original Capt. Kirk, William Shatner refused to do a cameo in the reboot, and has called Abrams “a franchise pig” for gobbling up both Star Trek and Star Wars. Abrams is unfazed: “I adore him. We just had a meeting two weeks ago. I truly love the guy. He’s so funny! He’s got such a willingness to be childlike, and it’s something I hope as I get older I never lose.” So might Shatner be coaxed into a cameo in a future Star Trek? “I’m open to anything,” says Abrams, whose cosmic tent seems infinitely expandable. Maybe there’s a role for Shatner in the next Star Wars.