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He's reaching for the stars ... but can Abrams lord it over two sci-fi screen giants?


JJ Abrams

JJ Abrams

JJ Abrams

JJ ABRAMS is master of one universe – and he's about to try conquering another.

The director who rebooted Star Trek for a new generation, sending the USS Enterprise out again to explore strange new worlds, has also been put at the Star Wars helm. Soon he'll direct a new film, the seventh, in the epic sci-fi franchise.

So while Abrams is in London to talk about his second 'Trek' feature, Star Trek Into Darkness, the topic inevitably drifts to a galaxy far, far away.

"I feel preposterously lucky," said Abrams, a self-declared Star Wars fanboy.

"I do feel at the core this incredible disbelief that I'm actually even answering questions at all about my involvement in something that until fairly recently I didn't even know was going to come back as a series. And now I get to be involved in it."

Just how involved, he says, remains to be seen.



Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII is part of big plans for The Walt Disney Co, which bought George Lucas' Lucasfilm empire last year for $4.05bn (€3.15bn).

The company is planning three sequels and two standalone spin-off movies focusing on characters from the Star Wars universe.

Will Abrams direct the entire new trilogy? Will he be involved in any of the spin-offs? Will George Lucas play a mentoring role? He can't say.

"I never see myself doing anything more than what's in front of me," Abrams said – one film, due for release in 2015 and scripted by Little Miss Sunshine screenwriter Michael Arndt.

"What the approach is going to be remains to be discussed, because it's in process," he said. "So it's a weird thing to be talking about. If I'm charging down the court dribbling the ball, it's hard to comment on the layup that's about to take place.

"I feel like the ball is just getting passed to me now, to complete the annoying metaphor."

But it's a suitably energetic metaphor for the prolific creator of TV shows, including Felicity, Alias and Lost, director of films Mission: Impossible III and Super 8 and owner of Bad Robot, the production firm whose upcoming projects include a movie about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Compact and voluble, in natty black-framed spectacles and a dark jacket, 46-year-old Abrams is the epitome of the geek made good.

By his own admission, though, he has never been much of a Star Trek fan. Roberto Orci, a producer and writer on both Abrams' Star Trek movies, says – with mock-horror – that the director "didn't even know that Spock was half-human".

Abrams' distance may actually have been an asset. The Star Trek reboot works because it speaks to fans and newcomers alike. "I think a lot of sequels make this weird mistake, which is that they assume you care," Abrams said. "The approach to Star Trek, especially for Into Darkness, was to make a standalone movie. You never have to have seen our first film or the original series."

Abrams' characters are drawn directly from the original series, led by impulsive Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) and uber-logical Vulcan first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto). But the filmmakers gave themselves freedom to play with character and plot, thanks to some alternate-universe sleight of hand. Treats for fans of the original are scattered about like Easter eggs, there's the return of an iconic character, even a tribble.

Star Trek Into Darkness retains the thread of social commentary that ran through the 1960s original, asking how far is it morally acceptable to go in waging a war on terror. But the film, shot in almost overwhelming IMAX 3D, announces its action credentials in a visually spectacular opening scene.

If the stakes were high – first in reviving Star Trek, then in trying to outdo the first film's box office tally of almost $400m (€311m) worldwide – Abrams said he didn't notice.

"I was aware of the pressure but never really felt it, because I was not a Star Trek fan," he said.

"Working on it didn't carry the same sort of personal challenge of wanting it to meet a feeling that I had had since I was a kid."

For Star Wars – which he emphatically has loved since childhood – the stakes are even higher. Abrams knows he has to find a new way to approach material that has seeped into the global bloodstream.

Abrams says his approach will be similar in some ways to the one he took on with Star Trek.

"No project can be or should be approached assuming that the audience has any investment," he said.

He is fairly certain about one thing – the worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek will never meet.

"One is a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. And one is us in a few hundred years," he said.

"They could not feel more different to me.

"I feel like in my mind there is no Venn diagram overlap."