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'Star Trek Into Darkness' -- J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot offer a sneaky sneak peek, Pt. 1

Preview footage and oblique hints leave us only slightly less in the dark

By James Rocchi Dec 11, 2012 6:16PM

Appearing before a gathered crowd of friends and journalists on Sunday night, J.J. Abrams -- creator of "Lost" and "Alias," director of "Mission: Impossible III" and "Star Trek"  -- asked the gathered crowd to be ... circumspect. We were gathered for a two-part event, footage we would see that night and the next day as a six-months-in-advance preview of "Star Trek Into Darkness." We would be seeing a 3D projection of the prologue -- all nine minutes of it -- and then a new trailer, for now; the next day, touring Bad Robot, we were shown another teaser and an action-packed scene from mid-film as well, albeit unfinished and with a temp score.

BING: Bad Robot l 'Star Trek' 

While introducing the Monday clip, Abrams looked askance at me holding my recorder aloft for his remarks and said, laughing, "Are you recording this? Really? I'm just asking. It's okay ..." This set the tone for the event, like one of those illogical circular questions Kirk used to use to blow up self-aware computers. This trip would be part of a carefully-planned promotional event, with writers hanging on every word Abrams uttered ... first among those words his request that we not tell readers as much as we learned. Agreeing to come on board meant not only a agreeably complicit arrangement, but as a fan of the first film, I'll also be spoiling myself for five months. And while this piece is more about the craft and genius that's gone into the film -- effects, costumes, props, score -- it'll also be fraught with facts and realities about the film, and I was one of several writers in a group, and several groups there for the day. (For example, one of yesterday's salient facts was a specific numeral, in that there are 14 Klingons in the film, an accounting I'm sure has already now echoed across the world.) If you're hoping to hold on to even the sliver of a glimmer of the possibility of surprise, I'm sorry, and heartily endorse not boldly going forward in this preview ...

Sunday night's footage was as satisfying as it was tempting, ending on a note-perfect line from McCoy and a very real cliffhanger. The first thing we see in the prologue is a father awaking and going to a hospital ... where Benedict Cumberbatch, the villain of the piece, sidles up behind him and, in a velvet croak, offers a father another chance. The quid pro quo is unstated, but implied ...

The scene then jumped to the busy work of the Enterprise crew, with one away team (Kirk and McCoy) trying to get the locals on the move away from a disaster that's either about to destroy the planet or at least their village. They've done this by, ahem, encouraging the natives to chase them, running though a red-tinged forest of jungle-like wonders and dodging spears in eye-popping 3D. (Imagine the scenes in 'Raiders" with Indy being chased by the Hovito, but on a red planet full of odd pants and animals out of a Dr. Seuss dream ...) Spock, dispatched to stop the disaster, has his simple plan knocked off its axis, leaving him in the jaws of certain death while Kirk and McCoy rack their brains to figure out if there's any solution that can save Spock without showing the locals the Enterprise and thereby violating the Prime Directive that Starfleet help primitive societies sight unseen. Kirk asks out loud what Spock would do if their positions were reversed; McCoy's blunt reply lands like a punch. And then to black. 

Again, I'm withholding details as requested, but it's not like the details I received clarified too much for me, either. As for the hope these previews and inside conversations would clarify who exactly Cumberbatch is playing -- we've been told it's a character from the franchise --  no such luck. Theories abound -- he's  the rebel and terrorist Khan! (In the previews and trailers we saw, that thesis is bolstered by lines from the script and the presence of Alice Eve as Carol Marcus.) He's Gary Mitchell, a Starfleet friend of Kirk's who acquired world-breaking psychic powers out at the edge of infinite space that made him godlike and insane! (This thesis is supported by the description of Cumberbatch's character as 'a one-man weapon of mass destruction.') There are as many theories as there are 'Star Trek' fans, and thus a lot. Abrams' usual trick of hiding as much of his films as he can in a metaphorical 'mystery box' is a lovely attempt to try and foster any sense of surprise in a world where spoilers race across the web long before in-context  appreciation of a whole film is even possible. Visiting Bad Robot for this preview, his enthusiasm for showmanship is appreciated even as you just want to nudge him in the ribs and say "Hey, is it Khan, or what? I got things to do ..."

We were then escorted to meet Ann Foley, assistant costume designer, as well as Andy Siegel, property master. Foley and Siegel stood in front of a variety of costumes on mannequins and a glass case full of props -- high-tech handcuffs, phasers, an elegant cane with the Starfleet emblem on its handle, a Spock-styled improvised explosive device, tricorders and more. Flanking the case on the left, a Starfleet wet suit -- which looks as frictionless as it does unforgiving -- is alongside a hazardous-environment suit Spock wears in the prologue, massive and delicate at the same time, shining tiles nesting among each other with mesh-fabric curves to make the suit movable. On the right hand side of the case, mannequins are bedecked in the flowing robes we first see Kirk and McCoy wear in the prologue. I asked the two about the central challenge of a "Star Trek" reboot on a design level -- namely, how do you interpret the design of a future made in 1960 with modern props and costumes to create a future that was slightly before the first one?

Foley noted one example of how they re-make a never-was future. "We updated the insignia, as you'll see later; we wanted to really stay true to the series and the first movie, just .." Siegel steps in: "Update it." Foley nods: "As Andy says, '2.0'" When I ask if the Starfleet uniform for females still includes, as it did in the first film, miniskirts, Foley laughs: "We wouldn't want to disappoint you guys!"  I ask about the Starfleet cane -- "Is someone later in the film singing 'Putting on the Ritz?'" Siegel laughs, then notes with the pride of a craftsman, "That's probably my favorite prop in the movie ..."

Siegel didn't work on the first film, as he notes forthrightly, and the effect that lack of continuity seems to have is perhaps a little liberating.  "2.0. You get a new iPhone every year ..." He nodded to the field of digital recorders thrust toward him. "You get a new recorder every year. So we did that. And there's some stuff for Trek fans - the mesh is back on the communicator." I noted to the two that the original show was infamous on a props level for turning a salt shaker into a medical probe out of economy. They laugh, Siegel saying "We did NOT do that ... we had some coffee cups we put the boomerang (The Starfleet logo) on, and we shopped for a really cool coffee cup that would work with the aesthetic of "Star Trek" ... I think it's from Ikea. But most of it we built from scratch. "

Foley's discussion of Kirk and McCoy's disguised look served as a nice demonstration of the hand-in-hand way all departments work so the visuals -- in 3D and IMAX -- will help the story. "This is their disguise, so we wanted to use a fabric that was organic to the planet ... so we used the same fabric on them that we used for the aliens, just dyed a different color. And because it's a red planet, we wanted something that made them stand  out so the audience could follow them."

I ask Siegel about times when the work seemed impossible -- or hard to do on a real-world level, without digital cheats. His answer was a brief digression on how even faking the future gets more and more futuristic.  "I promised one thing ... I promised (to put) a screen in to a prop that I almost could not fulfill. But I did; but finding a one-inch by one-inch screen that you can practically drive, that's battery operated, that you can load an image into ... and it's funny, a year later, you can do that with an iPod nano. But a year ago? I was mistaken!"

(Tomorrow, in Part 2 of our "Star Trek Into Darkness" preview, composer Michael Giacchino, effects and makeup, and the eerie similarity between Starfleet Uniforms and Delta flight crew ensembles from the '60s ... Want more Movies? Be sure to like MSN Movies Facebook and follow MSN Movies Twitter.)

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