JJ Abrams: Trek star

He was the creative genius behind 'Lost' – and now he has breathed new life into what had become a creaking sci-fi franchise

Guy Adams
Monday 10 February 2014 16:31

For a franchise about boldly going where no man has gone before, Star Trek has felt awfully backward-looking of late. Its cult of pointy ears and nerdy hand gestures seems marooned in the 1960s, when the Starship Enterprise took flight. The show's audience has withered; a TV series was canned. Captain Kirk and his crew, the subject of no fewer than 10 previous films, last saw the inside of a cinema in 2002.

Now along comes JJ Abrams, a modish film-maker with a glittering CV and a bold remit to reinvent this, the greatest brand in science fiction. Abrams has a precious Hollywood commodity: the common touch. He became famous creating the TV series Lost and the outrageously successful Tom Cruise flick Mission: Impossible III. His latest mission, one he vigorously chose to accept, was to develop a completely new kind of Star Trek film.

It won't be long until we find out how he's done. The movie, a $150m (£100m) "prequel" with a young, sassy cast, a smattering of sex scenes, and a script laced with healthy doses of comedy, promises to tell us how the young Kirk and his contemporaries came to begin exploring far-away galaxies. Called, simply, Star Trek, it will hit cinemas in almost every corner of Planet Earth a week next Friday.

Then, if you believe the buzz, it will become a massive hit. Read early reviews, or listen to guests lucky enough to attend the premieres, including a curtain-raiser in Leicester Square on Tuesday, and you'll be told that Abrams did a good job, a seriously good job. Though only the second movie he's ever directed, Star Trek seems likely to cement his standing as heir apparent to modern cinema's greatest science fiction auteur, Steven Spielberg.

The first write-up, published on Wednesday by Variety, could not have been more effusive. "The new and improved Star Trek will transport fans to sci-fi nirvana," it declared, adding that the "smart and breathless space adventure feels like a summer blockbuster that just couldn't stay in the box another month."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke of "a sensational ride." The Daily Mail's critic, so breathless he decided to break a UK media embargo and print his write-up this week, said it was "out of this world", and "by far the best of the 11 Star Trek movies" that "must rank as the outstanding prequel of all time".

Given a following wind, and a natural escalation in the hype being whipped up by Paramount Pictures, Star Trek may even capture the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle that helped The Dark Knight, another modern re-imagining of an old Hollywood franchise, which become the second most profitable film in history last summer, making an astonishing $550m (£356m).

Yet even half that total would represent a healthy endorsement of the Abrams "brand", a style of science fiction (which he often writes, directs, and produces) that has for the past decade formed the basis of hit after hit, on TV and in film.

His work overflows with high sci-fi concepts, and endless plot twists. It is made accessible by a healthy injection of humour, strong characters, and top production values. One of his current TV hits, Fringe, revolves around the minutiae of so-called "fringe" science, yet pulls in 10 million viewers in the US.

His treatment of Star Trek was typical. Abrams first decided to throw away the constraints of previous films by making a prequel. Then he settled on a classic coming-of-age narrative: the young James Kirk, a headstrong teenager played by Chris Pine, follows a Luke Skywalker-style path to maturity by enrolling in the Starfleet Academy to emulate his late father. Finally, Abrams instructed writing-partners Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to fashion it into old-fashioned popcorn entertainment.

They duly created a space soap opera on an epic scale. Star Trek is bursting with constant action and unrelenting comedy. Characters, however minor, are strongly drawn. You get epic fight scenes and brilliant special effects. Critics have spoken breathlessly about the grandeur of Abrams's vision, and the stirring scale of his narrative.

The cast includes fresh new faces, such as Pine, Zachary Quinto and Jennifer Morrison, and established stars: Simon Pegg, Winona Ryder, and Tyler Perry. For diehards, there's even a turn by Leonard Nimoy, the man who played Spock. It pitches to existing fans and newcomers to the Star Trek genre.

"So much momentum and goodwill is now behind this picture that it feels unstoppable," says Jay Fernandez, a film writer at The Hollywood Reporter. "JJ has this Spielberg thing: he pulsates with a love of movies and TV. Anyone who comes near him talks about being pulled into a creative vortex. Incredible ideas seem to fall out of his pocket."

It's always been that way. Abrams, whose initials stand for Jeffrey Jacob, was born just over 42 years ago in New York, the son of a prosperous couple of TV producers. He was brought up in Los Angeles, where he was immersed in film and TV, and the process of making it, almost from birth. As a child, he was an obsessive fan of The Twilight Zone.

He wrote his first film at 16, and promptly sold it to Touchstone. It eventually became the Jim Belushi vehicle Taking Care of Business. Then he spent the 1990s honing his trade, writing and producing a selection of moderately successful movies, including Forever Young with Mel Gibson and Regarding Henry starring Harrison Ford. He also worked with Jerry Bruckheimer on the 1998 smash Armageddon.

The project that made him, though, was Felicity, a TV drama about a college student, which he created and then produced for four years from 1998. It won a Golden Globe, and earmarked him as a rising star at Warner Bros, the studio to which his production company Bad Robot (so named because Abrams collects toy robots) was signed.

In 2001, he developed Alias, a sci-fi show about a CIA agent that ran for 105 episodes and launched the career of Jennifer Garner. Public recognition, and a form of cult following, followed three years later when Abrams was asked to develop a show for ABC about the survivors of a plane crash marooned on a desert island.

Legend has it that Lloyd Braun, the channel's head, called Abrams into his office, and presented him with a script which had failed to cut the mustard. Abrams disappeared for a week. He re-emerged with a plan: the classic Lord of the Flies tale would flirt with the supernatural. For it to work, Abrams decided, there needs to be something "wrong" with the island.

The result was Lost, launched in 2004 and turned into one of the most lucrative shows in modern TV history, currently in its fifth season. It swiftly inspired Paramount Pictures to come knocking at Abrams's door: unthinkably for a first-time movie director, they asked him to sign a $50m contract that would last four years and see him direct a new Mission: Impossible film.

In developing that title – which starred Tom Cruise, cost $150m, and eventually grossed nearly three times as much – Abrams set out a course he later followed with Star Trek. First, he sat down with Kurtzman and Orci, canvassed long-standing producing partners Damon Lindelof and Bryan Burk, and worked out how to revitalise an old franchise. Then he shot the film. Finally, he worked tirelessly to promote it.

"Abrams is incredibly personable. There were big PR problems around M:I3, as it was launched just when Tom Cruise's image became a problem, but he was happy to talk about pretty much everything," says Bob Strauss, film critic of the LA Daily News, who interviewed Abrams at the time. "He works hard to sell films. He's been promoting Star Trek for months."

Abrams lives in Pacific Palisades, an upmarket suburb of Los Angeles, with his wife, Katie, and three children. He works on the Paramount lot, where Bad Robot is now based, juggling Lost, Fringe and whatever film projects might land on his in-tray.

A cheery workaholic, he lives on his BlackBerry and Apple Mac, drives a Prius, and sometimes edits late into the night, in a suite at his home. He has a reputation as a creative magpie: if a writer or artist tickles his interest, he'll call them in for a meeting, and throw creative ideas about. This month, after being asked to guest-edit Wired, he filled the magazine with puzzles and mind games.

In keeping with the Hollywood cliché, Abrams has also achieved considerable wealth. Paramount recently renewed his contract to 2013, in a deal worth tens of millions of dollars that will see him develop a string of new films, including a new Star Trek film some time in 2011.

In a ropey economy, and an industry where DVD sales are tanking while major studios cut back on production, it marked a rare example of excess – and major vote of confidence in his enduring ability to keep on creating remarkably successful films, and TV shows, that are science fiction, but not as we know it.

A life in brief

Born: 27 June 1966, New York.

Family: Both of his parents, Gerald W and Carol Abrams, are television and film producers. Abrams is married to Katie McGrath, with whom he has three children.

Early Life: Aged 16, he wrote the score for the film Nightbeast. After growing up in Los Angeles, he moved back to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College. In his final year he began work on the script that was to become Taking Care of Business.

Career: After writing a collection of films in the early 1990s, including Forever Young, he teamed up with Hollywood heavyweight Jerry Bruckheimer to write Armageddon. His television creations include Alias and the international phenomenon Lost. Mission: Impossible III was his directorial debut.

He Says: "It's a total narcissistic joy to have some private little pleasure, through a lucky stream of events, become tangible, so that you can actually walk on it and touch it. But to do it and have it embraced by millions of people all over the world, like Lost – that's insane."

They Say: "Anyone who comes near him talks about being pulled into a creative vortex. Incredible ideas seem to fall out of his pocket." – Jay Fernandez, film writer at The Hollywood Reporter

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