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05.09.09

Star Trek: The Reboot

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek blockbuster may be one of most acclaimed sci-fi remakes in Hollywood history. Tom Shone explains why, and offers six proven ways to successfully reboot movie franchises.

As the new Star Trek descends on theaters at warp speed, studio heads are scrambling to bring rebooted versions of The Muppets, Highlander, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Predator, and Ghostbusters to the screen. But what exactly is a reboot, and how does it differ from a remake, a revamp or a re-imagining? Here are six rules of the road for giving a time-tested franchise a shot in the arm.

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Go back to your roots.
The most common form of reboot is an origins story, in which a tired and aching superhero franchise cuts loose, sheds some pounds, and rediscovers what made it super in the first place. In Batman Begins, we got to seeing the moment when Batman first donned his cap; in Casino Royale, we saw Bond slip into his first tux. These iconic “shiver” moments (never before seen!) are the Holy Grail of the reboot. One of the reasons the new Star Trek works so well is because it features half a dozen such shiver moments, as first Kirk and Spock, then Chekov, Bones, Uhuru, Mr. Sulu, and Scotty report for duty on the Enterprise. The size of the shiver is related to degree of how important the revealing moment is—seeing Dr. Spock in velcro for the first time is a thrill; Lara Croft’s first glimpse of lycra isn’t.

Bring out your human side.
Think of a reboot like an appearance on Oprah’s couch; it should feel like having one of those conversations that begins “I feel like I’ve known you all these years without really getting to know the real you.....” Bond fell in love in his reboot, as does Spock in the new movie; he even loses his temper, going mano-a-mano with Kirk on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. To those who complain that he has lost touch with what made him Spock in the first place, I should point out that he is, after all, half-human, on his mother’s side. Unlike Superman, who is, of course, 100% alien, which is one reason that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns didn’t really work: Celestial melancholy doesn’t really warm a guy up. Show some heart.

Continuity be damned.
As Wikipedia says, a reboot differs from a remake or a prequel, in that the latter two are generally consistent with the canon (previously established continuity) of the series; with a reboot, the older continuity is largely discarded and replaced with a new canon.

In other words: Do not worry too much if your Joker looks nothing like the last Joker; the whole point is to start afresh and pretend the other guy doesn’t exist. Think of it rather like the transition from one democratically elected government to another, in which the mistakes of the previous administration form a constant backdrop which you can then be admired for not pointing out. After a decade of seeing other directors bodge up his Halloween movies, John Carpenter returned to make Halloween H2O, which continued the characters established in the first two movies, but roundly ignored all the intervening films. This bout of selective amnesia is what makes a reboot work.

Still, this not an invitation to turn the Bat Cave pink. Fidelity to your original source still counts for something. In the case of Star Trek, there exist hordes of bug-eyed fans ready to pounce on every single continuity lapse and break in narrative logic. It might be pointed out, for instance, that it is inconceivable for the crew of the enterprise to do battle with Romulans, a race they first encountered many decades later in an episode of the TV series. The filmmakers solve this by wheeling on Leonard Nimoy, as Spock’s future self, to explain that the whole film is in fact taking place in an alternative reality created by a black hole. Confused? This is J.J. Abrams, remember: The guy made Lost. Next time, however, he might want to try thinking up some new bad guys.

To reboot, you must first crash.
Or if not crash, then come as close to crashing as, well, General Motors. Simply admitting that the last film was no good and promising that the next one will be “less bubblegum,” as the makers of the Fantastic Four have done, will not cut it. That is not a reboot, that is simply a promise to try harder next time. Having crashed, a decent period of mourning must be observed. It is not enough to give up the ghost after just one film: Making one version of The Hulk, and then after that fails, making another version of The Hulk, is not a reboot. If your first reboot needs a reboot, then the first reboot wasn’t technically a reboot—get it? It’s not a remake either. In fact I’m not sure what that is, I don’t think you should be doing it anymore. Give a franchise time before you breathe new life into it.

Think of a reboot like an appearance on Oprah’s couch; it should feel like having one of those conversations that begins “I feel like I’ve known you all these years without really getting to know the real you.....”

Fire Brando.
Reboots are a perfect to avoid paying expensive stars and instead see what new beauties have turned up in Hollywood's in-tray. Daniel Craig is, by common consent, the best bond since Connery; Christian Bale steps into the role of Bruce Wayne with the entitlement of a Wall Street titan. As for the original cast of Trek, well, one doesn’t like to say anything, but those costumes were filling out a little; and Trek’s plucky Kennedy-era optimism looked hopelessly out-of-date in a smoky, apocalyptic landscape dominated by Terminators and Robocops. But these days, who cares about superheroes exploring their dark side? The new movie is the most upbeat blockbuster in years, with Chris Pine playing Kirk as a scrappy ne’er-do-well with a famous dad who thinks with his gut and deplores negotiating with the evil Romulans; mixed-race Spock meanwhile radiates skinny logician cool as he pursues a course of intergalactic diplomacy. Which just goes to show that if you wait long enough to reboot, the zeitgeist will eventually catch up with you.

Tom Shone was film critic of the London Sunday Times from 1994-1999.He is the author of two books, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press) and In The Rooms (Hutchinson), his first novel, to be published in July.