By Geoff Boucher
Updated August 03, 2020 at 05:45 PM EDT
Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; Zade Rosenthal

J.J. Abrams is a man of many enthusiasms, so speaking slowly is generally not his thing. But today the director arrives late for lunch at the dining facility of his company, Bad Robot, in Santa Monica. He’s carrying a plate of pasta, wearing an apologetic expression, and actually searching for words.

“I’m sorry,” he says, by way of an opener. “With today, it’s awkward. Or it’s going to be. Super awkward.”

Abrams is here to discuss Star Trek Into Darkness (out May 17; not yet rated), the 3-D sequel to his 2009 hit Star Trek and an all-but-certain popcorn powerhouse for 2013. Over the years he’s turned Bad Robot into a hub for storytellers, artists, and digital dreamers — an Algonquin with action figures and board games lining the shelves. And right now the whole building is alive and humming with postproduction work on the movie. But in a couple of minutes, Abrams explains sheepishly, there’s going to be a sonic boom when an industry website reports that he has agreed to direct Star Wars: Episode VII, the first Jedi film that will take the saga beyond the Viking funeral of the redeemed Darth Vader.

Abrams punctuates his explanation with one word: “Madness.” It’s a solid choice.

Before long Bad Robot is filled with gasps, whispers, and huddles in hallways. Months earlier Abrams had said unequivocally that he had no intention of taking on Star Wars and trading one galaxy for another one far, far away. But look, stuff happens. As Yoda says, “Always in motion is the future.” And after the extraordinary job that Abrams has done revitalizing the Star Trek franchise, there’s one thing that fans of both should be able to agree on: Star Wars is lucky to have him.

Abrams could have done a salvage effort on Star Trek. Instead he delivered salvation. His maiden voyage on the Enterprise was the first Trek film to recast the iconic TV roles, and it managed to nail the sense of optimism and forward motion that’s so central to the franchise. His Star Trek brought believers and nonbelievers into the megachurch that is the multiplex, taking in $386 million worldwide. A sequel? Yes, please.

Into Darkness reunites Chris Pine as Capt. James T. Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock, and Zoë Saldana as Lieutenant Uhura. This time around the headstrong Kirk takes the Enterprise on the trail of a terrorist, violating Starfleet orders in the process and jeopardizing his command. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays the bad guy in question, a man called John Harrison who’s described by co-writer Alex Kurtzman as a “member of Starfleet who turns on Starfleet.” Unconfirmed rumors suggest that Harrison also goes by the name of Khan, the genetically upgraded tyrant portrayed by Ricardo Montalban in a February 1967 episode of the original series, as well as in 1982’s big-screen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. No one in the cast or crew will go within 20 light-years of a spoiler, but Pine promises that Into Darkness will deliver “more action, amazing effects, and something like 45 minutes of IMAX footage.”

All parties involved — especially Paramount — hoped to be working on Abrams’ third Trek movie by now. And the director acknowledges that the past four years have been a tough sit for fans. “It’s not decades, but it’s long enough that you do have to remind people what the thing is and where it’s at,” he says. “It would have been better probably for the studio [if we’d put it out earlier], because it would have been fresher in people’s minds. But I’m happy we didn’t rush it. It wouldn’t have been a better movie if it came out earlier, I know that.”

Asked if the actors seemed different this time around, Abrams brightens. “No, not different, but I would say all of the actors, uh, have more opinions this time,” he says with a chuckle. “The first time they were all kind of trusting of me and of the process. They hadn’t proven to themselves that they could play these characters. Now they’ve been these characters, and they’ve been told — by me and by many others — that they are loved as these characters. So they came to the table with attitudes and opinions that in most cases were entirely valid and hugely important. And all of them are crazy-smart.”

It’s a crisp January day in 2012 at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif. The massive set for Star Trek Into Darkness is still under construction, but on a quieter corner of the lot stars are aligning in front of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The wardrobe department has fittings scheduled throughout the day, and midmorning has brought together seven of the new-era Enterprise crew: Pine, Saldana, Karl Urban (Dr. “Bones” McCoy), Simon Pegg (chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott), Anton Yelchin (Ens. Pavel Chekov), John Cho (Lieut. Hikaru Sulu), and Bruce Greenwood (Adm. Christopher Pike). There are high fives, hugs, and laughs all around. “We’re like a bunch of theater-camp kids, a bunch of oddballs,” says Pine. “The genius thing about J.J. is that if you’re going to make a movie all about this family, it’s a lot easier to pick a group that actually enjoys each other’s company.”

The original TV cast was considerably less touchy-feely — their feuding was even spoofed in the 1999 cult hit Galaxy Quest. Star Trek first hit TV in 1966. It was created by Gene Roddenberry, who (according to lore) pitched it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Roddenberry, a decorated WWII bomber pilot, envisioned Buck Rogers for a Peace Corps era. The series centered on the United Federation of Planets and a military-like Starfleet, but this navy was driven by a Cousteau-like thirst, not a Napoleonic hunger.

Though it was beloved in some circles, the ratings never materialized. William Shatner’s voice-over may have promised a “five-year mission,” but the Enterprise ran out of power in the third season. In the years that followed, however, something strange happened. Reruns and fan conventions transformed Star Trek into a new type of cult success, and novels widened the universe. Then, in 1977, the Starfleet universe benefited from a supernova called Star Wars.

It’s no secret that some hardcore Trek fans think Star Wars is an entirely different sort of animal. They don’t think Star Wars should even be called sci-fi: Despite the spaceships and robots, George Lucas’ universe is rooted in the mysticism of the Force and an epic struggle between good and evil, making it an inheritor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and (even more) Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, as opposed to occupying the purer river of sci-fi that began with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and by the 1960s found new tributaries in the off-world visions of Roddenberry, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stanley Kubrick. Still, there’s no denying that the success of Star Wars was a boon to Trek. Hollywood quickly wheeled anything with a spaceship out to the launching pad, including 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

A string of mostly solid hits followed, but 10 years ago the franchise was dead in space for a second time. 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis was the biggest flop in the brand’s big-screen history, with a $60 million production budget (which may have doubled with marketing and other costs) and domestic box office of $43 million. That abject failure led to the consensus that it was time to try something new. Bad Robot swooped in and became Paramount’s co-producer. Abrams was originally reluctant to direct the movies himself: He’d seen Trek when he was a kid, but he related far more to farm boy Luke Skywalker than anybody he saw on the Enterprise bridge. Ultimately, he came around. ” ‘To boldly go…’ If you can get past the cliché and make it real and relevant, there’s something very exciting about that,” Abrams told this reporter in 2009. “This is not Star Wars, which happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is us and our future.”

The specifics of Into Darkness‘ plot have been guarded by Abrams, who is the 21st-century version of the Romulan cloaking device — or, as Pine calls him, the “benevolent dictator.” But there is a true brain trust at the heart of the movie: Bad Robot cofounder Bryan Burk; Prometheus writer and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof; and Fringe and Transformers co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. (That list, by the way, may well include the name of the next Trek director.) The son of a television producer — and a brand-name small-screen mogul himself with shows like Alias, Felicity, Lost, and Revolution — Abrams brought TV’s writers’ room model to feature-film creation, and Bad Robot is a hive of activity on all manner of projects.

It can be thrilling, and nerve-racking, for an actor. “The exciting thing is there’s a possibility for change at any moment,” Pine says. “Because of that background in TV, there’s a possibility of changing story, dialogue, character points, action beats — these are all up for review at all times. Nothing is sacrosanct, no one is safe. You have to walk in and be really nimble.” Pine remembers days when scenes were reworked in huddles as the tag team of Abrams and Lindelof tried to get their arms around some elusive piece of screen magic. “It was superscary,” Pine says, “but it’s a lot of fun. It’s test-pilot stuff.”

We do know that Into Darkness depicts spirit-crushing attacks on London and San Francisco: Abrams says he was eager to have more scenes in general where the audience “gets out and about” in a city setting on Earth. And we know that Uhura has a cooler part. One of Team Abrams’ sharp departures from Trek history is the romance between Uhura and Spock. Both Quinto and Saldana say they were glad to see the relationship tested in new ways and pointed to the novelty of an onscreen couple who struggle with the fact that they are, well, not the same species. Saldana, true to Abrams’ remark about actors making their voices heard, had one more message for the writing team: “I told them to make sure that Uhura kicks more ass. And she does!”

Quinto is proud of Spock’s arc, too, though he’s either tortuously or tantalizingly vague on details, depending on your point of view. “I think we tapped into something in the first film that a lot of people weren’t expecting, which is the emotional undercurrent and how powerfully it runs through him,” he says. “That continues in this film. There are things that happen to him — and things that he’s part of — that are incredibly personal…. That was really exciting for me both physically and emotionally.” So for Spock, you can expect…things!

And then there’s the arrival of Cumberbatch’s mysterious character, John Harrison. In the trailer for Into Darkness, the actor appears to display superhuman abilities, which would fit with the Khan suspicion. The actor, of course, is sworn to secrecy. “People care,” he says. “They really, really care, and they’re engaged by this — and as long as I don’t say something by accident, then it’s all to the good.”

Pine knows the pressure Cumberbatch is under, particularly as a newcomer to the franchise: “When you get on the train of a tentpole movie like this, there is so much expected of you when it comes to promoting the film. There’s a huge learning curve, and it’s not easy. There’s the excitement, the questions asked, the fact that this is Star Trek — and the fact that J.J. keeps secrets like no one else.”

Ah, yes, J.J. and his secrets. For the record, everyone expects Abrams to serve as a producer on upcoming Star Trek films. But even folks close to him were jolted by the announcement that he was taking on Star Wars next. Orci, the most devoted fan of classic Trek within the inner circle at Bad Robot, is of two minds. “For J.J. this is achieving a childhood dream — Star Wars is what got him in the business,” he says. “So watching him go to his Super Bowl like this? It’s genuinely joyful for me. [But] as a guy who is in love with Star Trek and in love with this version of it? It puts a scared lump in my throat. It’s like hearing one of the band members is going to do a solo album. I know Star Wars is going to be better for it. And I suspect Star Trek will be fine with the rest of us still here.”

Despite the turmoil, there are two big winners in the new scenario. One, obviously, is Abrams himself: He becomes the first earthling with an active dual citizenship in two of the coolest deep-space mythologies in entertainment history. The other is all of us. One of our great storytellers is breathing life into two far-flung galaxies — and we get to live in both.

Read more:

14 different ways of looking at J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Wars’

Star Trek: The Original Series

Star Trek

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 127 minutes
  • J.J. Abrams
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