By Mallory Pickard

2009 was a good year for JJ Abrams. Not only did he revive a waning Star Trek franchise that Roger Ebert claimed was “over” after box office nightmare Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)– he resurrected it. Abrams’ Star Trek made nearly $400 million worldwide despite being the most pirated movie online with 11 million downloads in 2009, and was ushered in by critics as one of the top films of the year. The film is a Producer’s Guild of America nominee for best narrative (along with its sci-fi companions Avatar and District 9)– the National Board of Review placed it in their Top 10 Films of 2009– it holds a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes ahead of both Avatar and District 9 and Best Picture prospects like Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds— and it is already an Oscar nominee for Visual Effects. It is also highly likely given the Academy’s decision to extend Best Picture nominations this year to ten films instead of five that Star Trek will again find itself in welcomed new territory.

No doubt Paramount is pleased after Nemesis was labeled a tired carbon copy and grossed the franchise’s lowest income ever, scraping by with $67 million worldwide after its $60 million production. The studio ranked second in 2009 for its $1.5 billion box office gross, but it also only made 12 films– the fewest of any major studio. It appears Star Trek has become to Paramount what Batman is now to Warner Brothers– and it was largely Abrams’ signature vision and Spielberg-like passion for filmmaking that made it so.

Abrams was concerned from the very beginning with creating a film that was loyal to the franchise and its avid fanbase, but also modernized with an altered narrative and new style. Enter famed Hollywood writing duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Orci himself a Trekkie), who read graduate school dissertations on Star Trek to get a feel for character dimensions and write a script that would lure Abrams to the director’s chair. The plan worked, and Abrams’ careful attention to character development in light of digital theatrics made Star Trek both a commercial and critical success– which may be the reason Orci and Kurtzman are reportedly dismissing “Transformers 3” for other projects including the Star Trek sequel.

And it’s no surprise, especially considering the buzz calling the film the next (original) Star Wars, which provided inspiration for both the director and the writers. Abrams pays homage to Empire Strikes Back in a key sequence in which Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself stranded on a hostile, icy planet. Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk as the charismatic renegade hero draws comparison to Harrison Ford as Han Solo–coincidentally, Pine was recently chosen as the new Jack Ryan, a character Ford famously played in Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games. Trek’s sound effects were designed by Ben Burtt, the sound designer for Star Wars who created the iconic lightsaber sound in addition to Darth Vader’s mechanical breathing. Most importantly though, Abrams’ directorial ability to blend virtue philosophy and subtle allegory with mainstream allure in the spirit of the original Star Wars distinguishes the film from the political-preaching Avatar and provides promise for a sequel that will surely be anything but tired.

Abrams is rapidly becoming a Hollywood powerhouse– on top of producing the Trek sequel and Mission Impossible IV, he has (count ‘em!) ten films listed “In Development” on IMDB. He became a household name in the 2000’s as executive producer of hit television series like “Alias”, “Fringe”, and most famously “Lost”, one of the most critically esteemed and commercially successful shows of all time. His television successes earned him a spot on Entertainment Weekly’s “15 Entertainers of the 2000’s” list along with Peter Jackson, Pixar’s John Lasseter, and ever so ironically, Steve Jobs himself. But with “Lost” nearing its final episode in May, it is clear that Abrams is gearing up for a deeper dive into film– and with the hearts of fans, critics, and Paramount in his back pocket, why not? Save subtly for the script– the man who turned Star Trek into an Oscar-nominated blockbuster is all in, Hollywood.