'Star Trek' to 'Star Wars': J.J. Abrams across the universes

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Image 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.”

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