We've seen a sneaky preview of the new Star Trek. It is as brilliant as we hoped and more. The review will be posted shortly, but in the meantime here's an exclusive online Q&A with director JJ Abrams, in which he explains just what made him want to explore the depths of the Vulcan psyche and why he left our cover star's famous bowl-cut well alone.
ESQUIRE Would it be fair to describe the plot of your new Star Trek film as the birth of the Spock and Kirk bromance?
JJ ABRAMS The primary relationship in the movie is these two men who are in pretty severe conflict. Over the course of the story they end up moving a little bit towards each other and become this duo that - in the series at least - was always presumed to have existed from the beginning. This movie posits that they would not necessarily be so friendly when they first met.
ESQ Why not?
JA The conflict comes from Spock being a completely rule- and law-abiding logical being, and Kirk being an incredibly intuitive, emotional going-from-his-gut sort of guy. You have these two wildly disparate approaches to life, and when a crisis arises these two characters obviously go about it in a very different way. But they actually have a conflict that arises before that – from the very beginning these two don’t really see eye-to-eye.
ESQ Were there other aspects of their characters that you wanted to develop?
JA Being someone who appreciated Star Trek but didn’t really live and breathe that universe, I hadn’t really considered the fact that Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan. You could argue that it would be a very difficult for this guy, growing up with a mother who is not a completely logical being. Being half-human, even though you’d say, “Vulcans are logical, Vulcan children wouldn’t bully him,” on the other hand they could also be testing a theory that he could break and become emotional. That alone was a fascinating idea for a character. With Kirk, instead of just assuming that at a very young age he had the confidence and wisdom and even the desire to lead as the captain, we looked at what makes someone like that. Where would that come from? And how would those abilities actually find that captain’s chair? A lot of what the movie plays with is the becoming of these characters that many people know and love.
ESQ So this is their difficult adolescent years? Does Spock try out some experimental haircuts?
JA We embraced a look [for Spock] that was ordered and consistent and familiar because while Earth is emotional, varied and cultured, Vulcans are a much more structured, orderly, peaceful society. The Vulcan approach is to forgo emotion, embrace logic, and therefore control your destiny. That speaks to a more standardised appearance, less of a crazy look.
ESQ Does he at least get a bit of love action?
JA There’s this period for Vulcans every seven years called “pon farr” where they go fucking insane. All the pent-up emotion comes out and they lose it and almost go primal. But certainly being Vulcan does not preclude having relationships, even though one might argue that for a Vulcan it’s about the logic of procreation. And Spock being half-human, that leaves him a little more susceptible in the film to desires of the heart…
ESQ You mentioned to us last time we spoke that you never quite understood why you were supposed to love Kirk and Spock so much. Do you feel that’s been rectified in your film?
JA I feel that now we have a story that shows these characters in very relatable ways, sometimes more amusing than others, but you see who they are and where they come from. I think if the movie accomplishes anything, it’s that you meet this group of characters that you like, and you see them essentially come together as a family. While I certainly enjoy watching the original actors in their roles, you’re never given that window onto their formative years - how they formed that partnership and that community on the bridge and on the ship. It was really important that the characters be believable and relevant and not just caricatures in a sci-fi world and certainly not impersonations of the earlier actors. I think that we’ve managed to find actors who have brought these characters to life.
ESQ Did Leonard Nimoy have particular feelings about what should happen to Spock?
JA He did. The script was very much honouring what has come before, so the character of Spock wasn’t suddenly acting in ways that Nimoy felt offended by or confused about. There were a couple of moments where Nimoy suggested that, for example, maybe Spock wouldn’t strike someone in that way. He had a few little comments here and there, all of which we respected and adjusted accordingly. He was always the most respectful, kind actor. When I say Leonard is the quintessential gentleman, there are no truer words to be spoken.
ESQ Why are super-intelligent beings so recurrent in sci-fi?
JA Science fiction doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from the state of things, and hypothesising based on the trajectory of science, where we’ll end up being in X-number of years. I think for many years what people have known or at least believed is that the creation of artificial intelligence, the promise of synthetic humans with none of the limits of biology, is an inevitability. Part of it is, oddly, wish-fulfilment and a sense of possibility beyond what we know. The idea of other species that are not just sentient beings but hyper-sentient beings, feels like something we all sort of hope and assume - because there’s got to be more evolved and deeper-thinking life than us. There is either wisdom to be gained from communicating with other species, or such dangerous intelligence that it’s horrifying: that feels like far more interesting story-telling than meeting the alien who’s a little bit of a dolt, or having the bad guy who’s not quite smart enough to turn the light off.
In the current issue of Esquire, Abrams makes the case for Star Trek for any non-believers out there - when the film is released on 8 May, they will be few and far between.
Photograph by Zade Rosenthal