We still have to wait until the Summer of 2009 to see the new Star Trek movie and Trekdom continues to sort through the few tidbits and comments from the film makers to try and figure out what we have in store. But there is actually a big statement from JJ Abrams and his team that is already out there — the summer 2006 film Mission: Impossible: III.
Mission: Impossible: III was the first feature film to be directed by JJ Abrams. Although the film was produced by star Tom Cruise, it was very much a JJ Abrams movie. Cruise gave Abrams a lot of creative control and Abrams brought many of his collaborators into the project who are also now working on Star Trek, most notably Alias writer/producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Other M:I:III /ST09 crossovers include production designer Scott Chambliss, composer Michael Giacchino, editor Mary Jo Markey, cinematographer Daniel Mindel, casting director April Webster, visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett (along with his ILM team), and many more. From department heads to crafts services, Star Trek is almost like a class reunion for the M:I:III crew.
Of the three films in the series, Abrams’ M:I:III received the best reviews (based on Rotten Tomatoes averages) and is generally considered to be the one that honors the original 60s series the best. Mission: Impossible: III had a budget similar to the new Star Trek and ended up making around $400 million world-wide at the box office (plus around another $200 mil in ‘home sales’). While the domestic sales came short of Paramount’s hopes, most of that was attributed to bad press for Cruise in 2006. This was most evidenced in the months after the film’s release when Paramount opted to not renew Cruise’s production deal while signing Abrams to a multi-year production deal (with Star Trek being the first major film).
And when one looks at M:I:III in context of the other work of the team (like Alias and Lost), along with what has been said about Trek to date, some things appear to become clearer about the team’s approach. Below are 10 things that M:I:III may be able to teach us about JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, along with clips and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
1. Frenetic, complex…and non-linear
Mission Impossible: III starts off the film right in the action with an intense exchange with the hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the villain Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The story soon resets to a quiet party scene sometime in the recent past. These kinds of flashforwards are typical of Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof when one looks at their work on Alias and Lost. The film then alternates between sometimes quiet simple character moments to fast-paced action shot with a lot of hand-held and camera putting the audience right into the action.
From looking at Abrams directing work with M:I:III and his work on TV, most notably the pilot for Lost, you can see that he has a very modern sensibility. So it is likely we can expect a much faster-paced type of Trek film to go along with what is likely to be a very complex story. Plus indications are that the Star Trek film will also be non-linear and will jump around in time, both backwards and forwards.
2. Character counts
Probably the biggest difference between the previous M:I films and M:I:III is balance between action and character, with much more exploration of the character of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in M:I:III. JJ, Bob and Alex give Hunt a life, complete with a house, a fiancé, and a romance that is at the heart of the film. They also transform Ving Rhames’ rather two-dimensional Luthor (seen in M:I and M:I-2) into Ethan’s conscience, with a number of thoughtful scenes between the two that explore both characters…in a way they made Luther into Hunt’s Yoda.
Again expect the new Star Trek to take this same approach with a heavy emphasis on the characters of Kirk and Spock. The origin story format of Star Trek will explore what it is it that makes these two iconic figures the heroes we know from The Original Series. Expect to see both Kirk and Spock go through their own arcs in the film and ‘grow into’ the characters we know and are familiar with.
FEATURETTE: M:I:III…this time it’s personal
3. Lower tech high-tech
A staple of M:I films (and spy films in general) is the high-tech gadgetry. For M:I:III Abrams decided to tone that element down in an effort to make the film feel more ‘real.’ Just compare the ‘mission briefing’ segments from M:I-2 to M:I:III. In the second film, Ethan gets his briefing on the top of a desert mesa with super cool sunglasses that beam the mission into his eyes and then are flung off in a slow-mo explosion. In M:I:III Hunt gets his briefing from a disposable Kodak camera that he picks up at a 7-11 and is destructed with a simple puff of smoke. That isn’t to say that Abrams doesn’t do tech, but he likes to take a different angle. For example he uses the masks with are famous in the M:I series on both TV and film, but for the first time shows you how one is being made. Possibly the biggest example of this lower tech approach would be the films maguffin, the ‘rabbit’s foot.’ Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman never even explain exactly what it is, and in the end it really didn’t matter since the focus of the story was on the characters.
Now don’t worry, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek will not be low tech. However, Abrams and his team have done everything they can to make it seem real. And although all the ‘technobabble’ terminology of Star Trek is there (warp, phasers, transporters, etc), do not expect for there to be technology solutions to the dilemmas. Also we are likely to see new twists on how these high-tech devices are used and shown. In addition, expect the look of the new Star Trek to be realer than any other Trek film or TV show yet. It is very important for the team that people feel the future of Trek is a real extension of our present and not some Star Wars-like fantasy future.
4. A complicated villain
There is very little to like about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian. He is a ruthless arms dealer who seems to have only a single agenda: himself. But he is still far more than a mustache-twirling villain. Davian’s many facets make him possibly the most interesting character in M:I:III, and certainly a worthy adversary for Ethan Hunt. In addition to Davian there are other villain twists in the plot, with characters living in the grey areas between protagonist and antagonist. These ‘is he a good guy or not’ type of villains are common in the ‘Abramsverse,’ with prime examples being Ben in Lost and Sloan in Alias.
The Abrams team have expressed their interest in having Star Trek’s Nero be a ‘memorable villain’ in the same pantheon of Khan. So expect Nero and his cohorts to be just as realized and even possibly sympathetic to an extent. And with the Trek team’s past projects in mind, it is always a good idea to keep your eye out for twists and turns with the bad guys.
CLIP: Even strapped to a chair, Davian still in command of the scene
5. Strong women
With shows like Xena, Lost and Alias, the various member of the Star Trek team (Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof and Abrams) have shown they like to write strong women into their projects. M:I:III is no exception with strong roles for the spies Zhen (Maggie Q) and Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), both of whom show smarts and the ability to kick butt. And even though Hunt’s romance with Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is at the heart of the movie, she still shows that she is no damsel in distress.
For the new Star Trek, there are a quite a few women in the cast. The most notable will be Uhura played by Zoe Saldana who is said to have a substantial role and will be doing much more than just answering the space phone. The cast also has Winona Ryder (Amanda Grayson), Jennifer Morrison (Winona Kirk ), Rachel Nichols (Orion at Starfleet Academy), Marlena Forte (Enterprise Transporter Chief), Lucia Rikjer (Romulan Communications Officer), Sonita Henry (Starfleet Doctor) and others…all of whom are said to have key roles in the film. In fact it was JJ Abrams’ wife Katie McGrath who was one of those who talked JJ into directing film and one of things she was most impressed with in the script was the female characters.
CLIP: Julia knows something is a bit off with her man
6. Respect for the franchise
Although the M:I series of films are all star vehicles for Tom Cruise, M:I:III came the closest to bringing back the ensemble feel of the original Mission: Impossible TV series from the 60s. Some segments, especially the elaborate Vatican break-in, feel like the complex schemes of Mr. Phelps, Paris, Barney and the old crew. There were also several continuity moments and homages to the previous two M:I films as well.
From everything we hear coming from Abrams and his team, there is clearly going to be a lot of respect for the continuity and history of Trek. It is said that there will be a lot in the film for the fans, including many ‘continuity nuggets’ — especially from the Original Series and Next Generation.
7. A few laughs along the way
Even though M:I:III is an action-packed spy movie, it still injects humor to break up the intensity. The most obvious ‘comic relief’ would be comedic actor Simon Pegg who plays the frazzled IMF tech-head Benji. Ving Rhames is also put to good use for a quip here and there.
Humor has always been a key element for Star Trek on both film and TV, especially with The Original Series. The new Star Trek movie should be no exception and with Abrams again casting Simon Pegg, this time as Scotty (who has always been good for a good laugh). So we should expect some chuckles in May 2009.
CLIP: Pegg lightens the mood in M:I:III
8. Locations, locations, locations
Any decent spy movies is going to have lots of international locations and M:I:III doesn’t disappoint with shots from Shanghai, Berlin, Rome and many other locations in the US and around the world. But in addition to those we also see the use of a lot of real world locations instead of just using studio sets, such as in the warehouse fight during the rescue of Farris. The film actually doesn’t use a lot of stages at Paramount, but when they did they created new locations not seen in the franchise before, such as IMF headquarters.
It has already been reported that JJ Abrams’ Star Trek used more locations than any other Trek film. Although they didn’t travel the globe, they did utilize a number of spots in Southern California to stand in for both interior and exteriors. Abrams is very concerned about things seeming real and so he prefers to use real locations even though he had the budget to create almost any set he wanted either at Paramount or via ILM. We can also expect to get a first or much closer look at famous Star Trek locations.
FEATURETTE: Abrams explains why he likes location shots
9. Effects blending real and virtual
M:I:III is a big budget summer movie with lots of effects, including lots of CGI effects, but they are often subtle and blended with the practical. In what is the most elaborate sequence, the attack on the bridge, Abrams and visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett seamlessly mix 2nd unit shots from the real Chesapeake Bay Bridge, with shots of a recreated bridge with practical effects of cars exploding along with additional CGI effects from ILM.
In the new Star Trek Abrams has brought back both ILM as well as Roger Guyett, who is both the effects supervisor as well as the 2nd unit director. Although all the space shots will be CGI, there is still an effort to make these as realistic as possible (including bringing on board a NASA space imagery consultant, Dr. Caroline Porco). But there will also be a number of practical scenes that will combine the real with CGI. Abrams has made it clear that he does not like the Star Wars prequel-like style of actors worked on green-screen stages interacting with tennis balls. Abrams always uses something ‘real’ whenever possible.
10. A modern soundtrack that respects the past
For M:I:III Abrams brought in his long-time musical collaborator, the Oscar-nominee Michael Giacchino. The film’s fast-paced soundtrack is on one hand the most unique for the franchise, and yet at the same time, best integrates stings and homages from the famous Lalo Schifrin M:I score. Giacchino created his own sound for M:I:III, filled with his trademark percussions along with a 112-piece orchestra, while still honoring the original TV show.
Giacchino is again on board with Abrams for Star Trek and has said all the right things about his respect for Trek’s past. However when one looks at his body of work, including this summer’s Speed Racer soundtrack, it is clear that Giacchino’s work will stand on its own, while still bringing back the nostalgic moments of past Trek scores.
FEATURETTE: Abrams and Giacchino on scoring M:I:III
M:I:III on Amazon
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More of our Abrams Team series:
What can Alias Teach Us About Star Trek XI
up next, we will take a look at Lost