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'Star Trek': Rebooting a classic

The franchise has been out of gas for years. Now director J.J. Abrams is leading it into a whole new galaxy, one that’s sexy and young. Will the next generation follow?

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Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, ...
PHOTOGRAPH BY CLIFF WATTS

Everyone is right where they should be. Chekov and Sulu are manning the navigation controls, Uhura’s monitoring communications, and pointy-eared Mr. Spock is hovering over his science station. But standing on the set in front of the ship’s blank viewscreen (planets and stars will be digitally added later) is an all-powerful being capable of destroying the U.S.S. Enterprise and the entire United Federation of Planets. Or, for that matter, saving it. No, it’s not Khan. It’s a guy in chunky eyewear peering into a video monitor.

”Oh, I feel the pressure,” says director J.J. Abrams, 42, creator of Alias and Lost, and now the force behind Star Trek, Paramount’s ambitious relaunch of the once great, though often terrible, 43-year-old franchise. ”In the eyes of a lot of fans, this is sacred material. Every shot, I’m wondering if this is where I’m going to f— it all up.”

The film’s got a cast of young, eye-catching unknowns — Chris Pine stars as rowdy Starfleet cadet James T. Kirk, while Zachary Quinto plays a green-behind-the-ears Spock, and Zoë Saldana is feisty Uhura. At the moment, it’s January 2008, and they have all gathered to shoot the scene in which the Enterprise is launched on its maiden voyage. If, that is, Sulu (John Cho) can remember to disengage the ”parking brake” and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) can make the speech-recognition software understand his Russian accent. Later, when they finally get the ship moving, they’ll clash with a Romulan (Eric Bana) and encounter a familiar bowl cut from the future (Leonard Nimoy as an older, time-traveling Spock). For now, all you need to know about the plot is that it doesn’t just propel you hundreds of years into the 23rd century — it also transports you four decades into the past, telling the story of how the crew that zoomed around the galaxy on TV from 1966 to 1969 met on the Enterprise in the first place.

For a while now, the Star Trek franchise has been stuck in neutral. After years of drifting in space, leaking gassy TV flops (Enterprise) and noxious features (Nemesis), the Star Trek brand had ossified into a pop culture punchline. Abrams’ two-hour mission in theaters on May 8 is to fire up those rusty old warp engines and make Star Trek watchable again. Somehow, he must find a way to turn this cornball idyll of space-age idealism, built on Kennedy-era optimism and Great Society hopes, into a tentpole event relevant to cynical 21st-century audiences. Or at least make it a lot less dorky. It’s a repair job even Scotty (now played by English comedian Simon Pegg) might have trouble pulling off. ”The space adventure has been done to death,” Abrams notes. ”How do you navigate those waters without turning into parody? Without becoming Galaxy Quest? All that stuff looms large.”

NEXT PAGE: ”At a certain point, Star Trek just choked on its own continuity.”

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