Meeting J. J. Abrams

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J. J. Abrams just released a new book called S. It's an amazing mystery box. I got to meet J. J., along with co-author Doug Dorst, at a release and signing in New York City. Here's how the conversation went down.

J. J.: "Hello…Ali?"

Ali: "Hi Mr. Abrams."

J. J.: "Thanks for coming tonight."

Ali: "I just wanted to say as a lifelong Trekkie how much I appreciated the last two Star Trek films."

J. J.: "You're too kind."

Ali: "You made Star Trek cool again and that means a lot to me. Star Trek got me interested in science and it's awesome to see a whole new generation get into it."


J. J.: "Are you a scientist now?"

Ali: "Yeah, I'm a psychologist."


J. J.: "Awesome, thanks a lot. This means a lot to me." *shakes hand*

Talking About the Future of Science? Don't Forget the Brain! (Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe Review)

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Two weeks ago, The History Channel aired a fantastic documentary about the science of the final frontier – Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe. If you haven’t seen it, watch the 90 minute video for free on their website.

If you're new to Star Trek, Secrets of the Universe gets you up to speed on the scientific foundation of the franchise. Through interviews with expert scientists, you'll learn about starship design, interstellar travel, planetary science, advanced propulsion, and the search for extraterrestrial life. You'll also get to hear A LOT of scientists geek out about how they were inspired to do what they do because of Star Trek (which is always a heartwarming for me since I had the same experience). 

Behind the scenes of the Enterprise bridge. 

Behind the scenes of the Enterprise bridge. 

Trekkies will love the beautiful behind the scenes footage from the making of Star Trek Into Darkness and the interview with J. J. Abrams. I’d even go as far as saying the Abrams interview will be healing for fans who were outraged over Abrams’s admission that he "never clicked" with Star Trek. Secrets of the Universe reassured me that that Abrams completely respects Star Trek and believes in its optimistic vision of united exploration.

Look how happy J. J. Abrams is creating his infamous lens flares!

Look how happy J. J. Abrams is creating his infamous lens flares!

There's just one thing that bugged me and it's a doozy – the documentary completely ignores the science of Star Trek’s optimism! Even if we invent the warp drive, build starships, and travel to other worlds, we're still going to destroy each other or kill extraterrestrial life if we don't implement the psychology of peace. Secrets of the Universe alludes to the dangers of alien first contact by describing our history of failed first encounters between cultural groups (see Columbus), but it doesn't have any psychologists talking about why first contact is difficult and what can be done to improve it.

Star Trek isn't about technology. It's about the evolution of our culture. To achieve Star Trek's utopia we’ll need to end prejudice, foster cooperation, and develop empathy for others. It’s not impossible – we have decades of brain and behavioral science showing us how to make it so.  

 Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe  beautifuly explained the warp drive (increase space behind you and decrease it in front of you), but it neglected the science of peace and cooperation. 

Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe beautifuly explained the warp drive (increase space behind you and decrease it in front of you), but it neglected the science of peace and cooperation. 

I still highly recommend Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe. I watched it twice and have no plans to remove it from my TiVo anytime soon. It’s a fascinating window into the science of our future. I just wish it had a scientist talking about how we can achieve the most important part of Star Trek – people working together to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Rating: 9/10


Below are my favorite quotations from Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe.

Design of the U.S.S. Enterprise

David Brin, Physicist, Science Fiction Author:

"I think the main thing was to completely break from the old Buck Rogers notion of these arrow shaped ships landing on their tails. The Enterprise, it's a naval ship. It's like Captain Cook discovering Australia, or the HMS Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin. These ships they had war fighting capacity but in addition they carried scientists. The captain he could sign treaties, he could negotiate. This naval vessel contains our civilization and this is how we're going to travel between stars."

Science of Warp Speed

Marc Millis, Propulsion Physicist:

"Imagine you wanted to move a car across a landscape. The warp drive idea is to say you manipulate the landscape and carry a chunk of land and move that and the car just rides along with it…You're no longer moving through space-time, you're moving chunks of space-time itself and the rules [of relativity] are different for that."

Creating the Federation

David Brin, Physicist, Science Fiction Author:

"What if we're the first to make it to the other side and make a civilization like the Federation in Star Trek, and what if everybody out there is waiting for us to do that – to go out and rescue them, to show them the way? That's a scary prospect. That's a burden. I think we can take it on. I think we can do it."

Inspiring Scientists

Gregory Chamitoff, NASA Astronaut:

"Star Trek is the inspiration for my life, it really is. What you guys are doing here [filming Star Trek] isn't just [creating an] incredible, spectacular movie...but [you're] inspiring a whole new generation of kids, like [me] when I was a little kid."

J. J. Abrams’s Childhood Inspiration

"I think as a kid I was more inspired by science fiction that I'm sure had been inspired by actual science. The idea of genetic mutation for example - extrapolate that and you have Godzilla or The Fly. The idea of space travel, what does it mean to be isolated for such a long time, inspired Rod Sterling to write the pilot for The Twilight Zone. Those are quantified examples of science inspiring entertainment that inspired me."

J. J. Abrams on Gene Roddenberry's Philosophy of Star Trek, Space Exploration, and Alien Life

"Roddenberry’s vision of the future was optimistic. His conceit was that there was no more conflict. It's a hard thing to be a parent and not desperately hope for a future that is as close to Roddenberry's as possible."
"I think when you look at what it is that Roddenberry wrote about going boldly where no one has gone before, humanity is trying to do that. I would hope we'd get the resources and the technology to travel to other moons, planets, and solar systems. It's an incredibly exciting to think what's out there."
"It is an absolute impossibly to look into a night sky and see all the stars and understand that each one is a sun and not know for a fact that we are surrounded by life everywhere we look. For anyone who looks out at those stars and is self-involved enough to think we are the only life in the universe is, I think, really misguided."
"It's a fascinating thing to work on a movie like Star Trek Into Darkness because it's science fiction but it's based on principals and ideas that I think are widely compelling which is people, all of us, working together that we are unified to explore this universe. There is something deeply relatable and a human natural curiosity - that when you actually think about it 'Oh my God, going off into space' - it's mind-blowing." 
"I think it's human nature to see a place in the distance and that place in the distance is never just a place it's always a destination. Humanity would never identify a place and not attempt to go there. Not to conquer, not to transform it, but to explore it."

J.J. Abrams Saved Star Trek and He'll Reignite Star Wars

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Now that Star Trek Into Darkness has been released, my attention turns to the next J.J. Abrams film - Star Wars: Episode VII.  

I've been wrestling with the news of Abrams controlling both franchises ever since the rumors were confirmed in January. Abrams made Star Trek cool again and I worried his departure could mean a return to crappy Star Trek movies. I started to think about other franchises with failed third acts (The Godfather, Terminator, X-Men) and kept tracing their failures to a change in leadership. The worst part was Abrams originally pledged allegiance to Star Trek and denied any interest in directing Star Wars. I felt betrayed. Lots of cognitive dissonance!

I've come to terms with this now. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm confident in the strength of the franchise. Star Trek also has a history of flourishing under new directors. Just imagine what Alfonso Cuarón or Brad Bird could do at the helm of the Enterprise!  

Sending Abrams to Star Wars also repays a 34 year old debt Trekkies owe our Jedi brethren. Star Trek was cancelled in the 1960s and returned as a film series because of the success of the first Star Wars film. Now, after 3 lackluster prequels, it's Star Wars that needs re-energizing. Abrams will undoubtedly deliver a fantastic Episode VII, if he can keep his fanboy love of Star Wars at bay.  

But it seems like I'm in the minority on this. Lots of Trekkies are upset about Abrams's role in Star Trek and his treatment of canon in the new film. Sujay Kumar's explores this issue at The Daily Beast. Here's a preview:

The man at the helm of the Star Trek reboot is making the seventh installment of Star Wars. The same guy controls over four decades' worth of intergalactic pop culture. The Greek chorus of geeks, ignored by Hollywood for seven years between Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Trek, should be mad as hell. J.J. Abrams is genre bogarting. 

Check out his article for more on Abrams and the future of Star Trek/Star Wars (including a quote about me turning my couch into a Return of the Jedi  speeder bike).

How do you feel about J.J. Abrams controlling the future of both franchises?

Star Trek Into Darkness is Cool and Relevant, So Stop Complaining Trekkies (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

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Note: No spoilers in this review, but I can't guarantee the comments will remain spoiler-free.

I loved J.J. Abrams's 2009 Star Trek - it made me believe in the future of the franchise. Star Trek Into Darkness delivers on the promise of the first film by giving us more of what made the original Star Trek series great - a relevant story and iconic characters. But the blockbuster scale of this movie is what makes Into Darkness so cool, why everyone should see it, and what has (mistakenly) alienated so many Trekkies.   

Post 9/11 Story

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In the last film, the Federation experienced a 9/11 event. Into Darkness deals with the fallout of that attack. We see just how far the Federation goes to protect itself from the threat of terrorism.

The film deals with many of the issues America faced after 9/11 - tension between morality and national security, a rise in xenophobia, an attempt to understand terrorism, and resilience against trauma (see the psychology of Star Trek Into Darkness).

The story has mass appeal with just enough social commentary for fans of science fiction to chew on (at least as much as Star Trek IV, Star Trek VI, and Star Trek: Insurrection had). 

Characters You Love

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Star Trek (2009) was the origin story of this crew. In the new film, the crew has become a family. This leads to some wonderful moments of humor, tension, and sadness. The cast is very comfortable in their roles and I completely embraced their portrayal of these iconic characters.

Newcomers will enjoy the camaraderie of the Enterprise crew and the deliciously evil villain. Trekkies will love the Kirk/Spock arc. We see what Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) meant when he told the younger Spock that his relationship with Kirk would "define you both in ways you cannot yet realize." Because of their friendship, Kirk becomes the Captain he was destined to be and Spock learns to embrace his human side.

Blockbuster Scale

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This is exactly what a summer blockbuster should be - it's big, fun, and exciting. But it's not just phasers and photon torpedoes - you really care about what's happening onscreen. Credits go to J. J. Abrams, his production team, the writers, and Michael Giacchino for creating a Star Trek universe that moves at a frenetic speed while remaining true to the ideals of Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek).

"The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few"

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It wouldn't be a Star Trek film without enraging hardcore Trekkies. Some are upset about the story’s reinterpretation of canon, its "dumbing down" of Star Trek's intellectualism, and the throw away references to previous movies and episodes. But this film isn't made for the outliers, no genre film is.

Movies have to work for a global audience. As Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." To make Star Trek work as a blockbuster, it has to be easy for people to jump in without pre-existing knowledge of the franchise. Complex source material must be streamlined while elements of original stories need to be included for devoted fans. That's a hard thing to balance. Into Darkness has its issues, but it offers enough to satisfy the needs of the many.

A successful blockbuster brings new fans into a franchise. The J.J. Abrams films have already done this for Star Trek - people who have never watched Star Trek are flocking to see Into Darkness (like my friend Duaba). All this excitement is good for the franchise – Star Trek remains incredibly popular on Netflix, The Next Generation is being delicately remastered in HD, we've got a great ongoing comic book series, and we’ll probably get a new film in time for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016. 

Sometime this decade we'll see Star Trek return to TV, the format in which it thrives. Like LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and The Walking Dead, this new Star Trek will be a complex science fiction masterpiece. When we see that version of Star Trek return, credits will go to J.J. Abrams for making it cool to be a Trekkie again.

Rating: 8.5/10

Revised Star Trek movie rankings:

  • Amazing - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness.
  • Watchable - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek: Insurrection.
  • Mediocre - Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: Nemesis.

The NY Times has a good critical review of the movie. EW has a more positive view of the film. I agree most with A.V. Club's review.

J.J. Abrams's Star Trek Makes Us Believe in the Future Again (Film Review)

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Note : I'll be sharing a series of posts about Star Trek this month to celebrate the release of the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. The following is my unaltered (with updated links and images) May 2009 review of J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film, originally published on a now defunct website. Keep in mind I wrote this way before learning the lessons of effective writing, so forgive me for my fanboy hyperboles. Check out my current thoughts on this film at the end of this post.       


SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen Star Trek (2009) yet, raise shields and engage evasive maneuvers!

I used to think Star Trek was a boring show for nerds who were obsessed with space. Then in 1991, my brother took me to see Star Trek VI. The movie was a fast-paced who-done-it murder-mystery action adventure about racism, espionage, and the end of cold war. It broke all the stereotypes I had for the franchise. In the proceeding months, I devoured everything Star Trek. I’ve been a Trekkie every since and it’s changed my life.

Star Trek instilled in me a curiosity about science, energized a love of learning, and nurtured hope and optimism about the future. It made me value other cultures and beliefs. It is the primary reason I sought an education and it set me down the path that I am on now.

Years later, Star Trek died. As Entertainment Weekly put it, “...Star Trek made the classic business blunder of the 1990s - it overexpanded.” After years of being saturated by recycled stories, the franchise lost its audience. In 2005, Paramount finally pulled the plug on the waning franchise and canceled the fifth and final Star Trek TV series.

I expected Star Trek to be shelved away for at least a decade. Yet, just a year later, it was announced that J.J. Abrams (producer of Felicity, Alias, and Lost) was hired to create a new Star Trek film. While Abrams was more than capable of producing a compelling sci-fi film (see Lost season 1), if it wasn’t done right (see Lost season 2) it would completely bury the franchise.

Since Star Trek is already the highest grossing film of the year, it’s safe to say Abrams has successfully rebooted the franchise. I think the film is fantastic, and here’s why.

Story

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The genius lies in the decision of the screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) to set the story in an alternate timeline. By doing so, the writers freed themselves from the previous 600 hours of established Star Trek canon. Most prequels fail because we know who will live, who will die, and how the story will end (see Star Wars Episodes I, II, III). Here, everything is back up for grabs (like the genocide of the Vulcan people). At the same time, the film honors what has come before, directly through Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and indirectly through numerous Star Trek easter eggs (e.g. red shirt, Admiral Archer’s beagle, Pike in the wheelchair, mind-altering slug, Kobayashi Maru, Kolinahr, etc).

Cast

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I was surprised at how much I believed Chris Pine as Kirk. He had the toughest job - filling William Shatner’s enormous shoes. But Pine played the character with just enough bravado, confidence, and sex appeal to be endearing but not douchey. Zachary Quinto was perfect as a conflicted and emotional Spock. Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. “Bones” McCoy was largely an imitation, but it worked because the character is so likable. Simon Pegg captured Scotty’s zest and humor. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, with her mixture of confidence and warmth, was the breakout performance of the film. It’s hard to judge John Cho’s Sulu (he didn’t do much beyond the fight scene). Anton Yelchin’s Chekov was a little heavy on the Russian accent, but I loved his eagerness. I wanted to see much more of both Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike and Faran Tahir’s Captain Robau. Eric Bana’s performance as Nero was menacing, layered, and tragic. Leonard Nimoy was so flawless as Spock that he nearly overshadowed the rest of the cast.

Direction

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Abrams’ direction in Star Trek is light-years ahead of his first film, Mission Impossible: III. Star Trek’s battles are epic and the character moments intimate. The editing moves at warp speed, keeping you glued to the screen. Major kudos for adding engine trails to the warp engines, changing the phasers to bullets instead of lasers, making engineering look like engineering, turning the viewscreen into a functional tool, and adding silence to space. Next time, ease up on the lens flares. They became pretty distracting during bridge sequences.

Special Effects

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Finally, we get to see what the Star Trek universe looks like on a Star Wars budget! Industrial Light and Magic really outdid themselves. Sound effects supervisor Ben Burtt (of Star Wars fame) also deserves special mention for integrating old 1960s Trek sounds with modern effects (e.g. classic sounds on the bridge, revamped transporter and warp effects). Both Burtt and ILM made this universe come alive in a way we’ve never seen or heard before and both deserve Academy-Awards for their work on Star Trek.

Score

Photo via  Scoring Sessions .

Photo via Scoring Sessions.

Michael Giacchino (Lost, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), would not have been my first pick to score this film. While I love most of his work, I didn’t think he could pull off a Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner styled space opera score. And he didn’t, his score sounds more like a superhero film score. I really want to hate it, but I can’t - the themes just fit the feel of the movie. Spock’s theme is the clear standout for me, beautifully capturing the wonder, elegance, and tragedy of the Vulcans. The original Star Trek theme song (appearing during the end credits) is also memorable. Like the rest of the film, it’s brilliantly updated and fresh.

The movie is not without its faults. It asks you to take a big leap of faith regarding Kirk. In the span of hours, Kirk goes from suspended cadet, to stowaway, first officer, and ultimately captain of the Federation’s most powerful ship. It’s not plausible and worse, it changes the character from a guy who earned his position through hard work to a guy with a destiny (a la Anakin Skywalker). I know the writers didn’t want it to take three movies for Kirk to become Kirk (a la Anakin Skywalker), but I don’t like this explanation and it doesn’t feel consistent with the rest of the Star Trek universe.

That being said, I’m a very big fan of this movie. It’s greatest accomplishment is in making Star Trek fun, exciting, and relevant again. The movie cuts across all demographics, including Trekkie/non-Trekkie, and offers something for everyone.

To quote Captain Pike, Star Trek “is important.” It was envisioned in a period of social, economic, and political unrest. Star Trek created a venue to discuss the issues of our time and gave us hope that we would not only get through our global crises, but we will grow as a species. Now, the world is a mess again. Our economies have failed, Americans are polarized on gay marriage, extremism threatens us domestically and abroad, and the climate is changing each year. I can’t think of a better time for Star Trek’s bright and optimistic vision of our future to be with us again.

Rating: 9/10

Revised Star Trek movie rankings (best to worst): ST6, ST8, ST11, ST4, ST2, ST3.....ST9, ST10...ST7, ST1, ST5.  


May 1st, 2013 Addendum:

I'm surprised at how much I agree with my original review - watching 2009's Star Trek is still a lot of fun and makes me excited about the future of the franchise. 

However, I don't know what I was thinking when I said Nero was "menacing, layered, and tragic" - the character was pretty one dimensional (though he's more fleshed out in the Countdown comic prequel). 

I also forgot how conflicted I was about Giacchino scoring the movie. Since he's become one of my favorite composers, it seems silly to question his attachment to Star Trek

I still don't like Kirk's rise to power (though it seems like there will be repercussions for that in Star Trek Into Darkness) or the use of lens flares (especially after all the excessive ones in Super 8). 

A lot of fans were upset that this film "felt like any other action movie" and that it was light on the social commentary. I get that, and this is definitely not the Star Trek I grew up with, but the "genocide of the Vulcan people" drew a parallel to September 11th and setup Star Trek Into Darkness's themes of terrorism. We'll get more social commentary in the sequel (I hope).