By: Scott Huver
If we’d learned our lesson from Lost, we should have expected this: only J.J. Abrams could invite a small legion of journalists inside his headquarters to spend the day talking about Star Trek Into Darkness and leave everyone walking away with more questions than answers.
You may have seen the nine full minutes of the prologue sequence from next summer’s Star Trek sequel – in 3D, and in IMAX – that appeared in front of The Hobbit’s debut on December 14 if you saw The Hobbit in 48 fps/IMAX/3D. Timed to that debut, Abrams recently previewed the footage (politely asking that journalists avoid a blow-by-blow recap) and gave a super-secret not-to-be-discussed taste of even more Enterprise action to media invited to his Santa Monica-based production company Bad Robot.
And as for that pre-Hobbit teaser, just like before the footage looks and feels like authentic Star Trek – on steroids and in fast-forward. The prologue deftly shows off Abrams’ skill at accelerating the Trek aesthetic into a more propulsive context than the previous TV and film iterations.
The Nine Minutes
In the tantalizing first few moments, we get a glimpse of very human, everyday activity set against a backdrop that feels both futuristic and lived-in: a mother and father go through the painful routine of getting up and going to visit their hospitalized and comatose young daughter, victim of an unrevealed ailment that apparently even 23rd century medicine can’t address. The mother’s eyes brim with loss and fear, the father’s burn with anger – until a mysterious stranger suggests that he may have a cure.
Next we're thrust into the middle of classic Star Trek scenario with Raiders of the Lost Ark-style adrenaline: Kirk and McCoy are on the run after a mission to save the inhabitants of the planet they’re visiting seems to have taken a drastic, Prime Directive-testing turn, while elsewhere Spock embarks on a dangerous journey to complete the second portion of the Enterprise’s assignment with the now seemingly well-oiled crewmembers doing their parts in support.
All the slam-bang elements of a grab-you-by-the-Starfleet-tunic opener for what promises to be a high-octane adventure are here– including a never-before-seen glimpse of underwater starship action. But there are also deeper, more character-driven plots brewing, too, like when Kirk and Spock are caught in a life-and-death conundrum that, for old-school Trekkies especially, will evoke the no-win scenarios and philosophical premises that permeated what many consider to be the best-ever Trek tale, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It's clearly intentional on Abrams' part.
The sequence is fast-paced, frequently funny, filled with FX and suddenly, dramatically tense – all things that portend a potentially even more exciting adventure than the 2009 reboot. And all we’ll say about that OTHER footage we got a glimpse of and that you’ll have to wait until May for is: it’s even better than the prologue.
The Behind-the-Scenes Action
To say that the Bad Robot offices – which are filled with displays of props and ephemera from Abrams’ projects as well as art and artifacts from the works of Lucas, Spielberg, Disney and other geek-friendly franchises and even a silkscreen shop for making T-shirts – are the dream secret headquarters of a teenager weaned on 1980s pop culture would be an understatement.
As the reigning cinematic wizard in residence, Abrams stayed (mostly) behind the curtain other than a quick appearance in the screening room and some casual conversation at post-visit rooftop cocktail party where he was joined by writer-producers Damon Lindeloff, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and cast principals Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana and John Cho, plus new additions Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch. But Abrams did fill various rooms and hallways with props, costumes and makeup samples from the new film, and brought in key behind-the-scenes crewmembers to shed the tiniest glimmer of starlight on the still-mysterious plotlines: Cumberbatch’s enigmatic, seemingly antagonistic character is shrouded in secrecy, though his name – John Harrison, apparently – hit the Web during the media visit; and a costume display revealed that Eve would be playing Carol Marcus, a youthful version of James T. Kirk’s paramour/baby mama – also from Wrath of Khan.
A few days before our office visit, Zoe Saldana told me that Abrams’ sense of lightness and fun with purpose is exactly what defines his directorial approach. "You need to understand, working in a J.J. film and a J.J. environment, he manages to get the best out of you while you’re laughing the whole time. Mind you, it gets intense because we do work crazy hours, and he’s a very hard working, very militant artist/filmmaker," she said. "But you never feel unhappy. It’s almost like as if you were like a little kid, and he just got you to eat like all your vegetables. And you thought you were having candy. That’s working with J.J." It's a sentiment echoed by all the crew who chatted with us about the film's creation.
Prop master Andy Siegel and assistant costume designer Anne Foley conducted a tour of items appearing in the nine-minute teaser – including a heat-resistant volcanic suit worn by Spock and sleek Starfleet wetsuit donned by Uhura – as well as a number of items from as-yet-unseen sequences in the film, like the new-look Klingon armor (with old-school-looking bat’leth), a series of Starfleet spacesuits and dress uniforms with a Pan Am flair to them – including pilot hats, which Foley says was a little nod to the '60s– and intriguing costumes apparently intended for Cumberbatch’s character, not to mention an assortment of new model phasers, tricorders and other familiar Federation trappings.
"They've already reinvented a lot of that stuff in the last movie, which I didn't work on, so you don't want to go too far afield of that because they did a great job," said Siegel of the minor tweaks to the props. "The reinvention of the phaser was really terrific. We just tried to do what I would do if I had a second chance at any product. You always go, Oh, what refinements can you make? Much like 2.0. You get a new iPhone every year, so we just did that. In the communicators, I put the mesh pad on because that's sort of a nod to the old communicator. The tricorders, we took some of the little bits, that little rounded metal part that I really liked in the original tricorder, and we reincorporated it into this one."
"We just updated the insignia," added Foley, indicating how the familiar boomerang-shaped Starfleet logo had been subtly refined for various rank pins. "We wanted to really stay true to the previous film, and also to the series, but we just gave it a little update."
Siegel said that while the props and costumes need to serve their function on the film set, they also end up as the studio’s archival and auction items. They’re kept in good condition and are not for the cast and crew to slip into their backpacks at the end of the day. "You just are very careful with them on set," he said." Everything has to be accounted for. I mean, the security level is pretty high, and I'm pretty much the devil when it comes to keeping that stuff on track. Not much got broken." Then he notices a large, gleaming Starfleet phaser rifle nearby and grins. "We had one of the ‘hero’ rifles get tossed down and that shattered into a bunch of different parts. That was unfortunate, but we had a great group of actors. They were really good about that."
Makeup effects designer David LeRoy Anderson displayed an impressive series of life-cast heads, including a molded bust of Quinto, ready for makeup refinement, as well as various fully executed exotic extraterrestrials – including a Klingon aesthetic that offers a slight alteration from the familiar look of the various second-generation Trek TV series of the past 25 years. "It’s a real balancing act," he said. "You don’t want to stray too far, but then you don’t want to cookie-cut the exact same thing."
Mr. Spock’s Vulcan ears and eyebrows are still the Mercedes-Benz of the franchise’s makeup effects, and Anderson – who like many Hollywood makeup artists started his career on a Star Trek series – dedicated himself to providing Quinto with a level of comfort while also solving some lingering problems. "They’re not simple," Anderson said. "Anything that you put on the nose in the middle of the screen, in the middle of the movie, is highly scrutinized and those ears – everyone’s looking at them." Asked how he didn’t go mad hand-gluing each individual hair of Spock’s upswept eyebrows onto Quinto’s brow each day over 45 minutes, Anderson answered simply: "I don’t know that I didn’t."
Composer Michael Giacchino, a veteran of scoring Abrams’ film and television productions, revealed he's done little work on the film—thus far. "I have no idea what I'm going to do yet because I haven't seen the whole film yet," he admitted. "I think the idea is that this is our version of Star Trek – for me, though, the one thing that I would love to incorporate in some way, somehow, is the [original] Alexander Courage theme because to me, that is Star Trek."
Giacchino revealed that finding that theme – which was universally embraced by the franchise’s oft-picky fan base – was extremely difficult. "It was terrifying in the beginning because I grew up as a kid who loved watching the original series – I loved it," the composer said. "I was so concerned about what other people would think of it and what it should be, and I went through 18, 20 versions of a theme that never felt right. Damon Lindelof said, ‘Why don’t you just forget all that space stuff – It's not a space movie. It's just a movie about two guys who meet and become the best of friends. Why don't we start from there?’" I was like, "‘Oh my God – that's such a great idea! Where were you three months ago?’ So then the next thing I wrote was this theme which I felt really good about, and I remember J.J. saying, ‘Yes – That's OUR movie.’"
Visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who oversaw the previous Trek film’s eye-popping FX, and his army of technicians had to handle rendering some of the immersive 23rd century environments featured in the film, including a red-hued alien forest, a hellish volcanic planetary core, a water-filled decompression chamber and even a futuristic take on London, England.
"We try to be respectful to the styling of the architecture of a city," he said, "and then you’re going ‘Okay, what would happen to that thing in a couple hundred years? Where would it go? Where would people take the vision of that city?’" Guyett took photographs and shot aerial footage of London to capture recognizable qualities, including incorporating landmarks like a still-standing St. Paul’s Cathedral, into the evolved cityscape. A traditional brick-and-mortar children’s hospital was given a futuristic spin with levitating gurneys.
"If you’re into visual effects, doing a space movie is just an awesome thing to be involved with. There’s maybe something in my DNA that, whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars or Star Trek, I still get off on just seeing the Enterprise lit – the scale and the quality of it. J.J. once said to me ‘It’s like space porn.’"