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Abrams adeptly handles franchise’s new incarnation

When adapting a revered book or television series to the big screen, most filmmakers find themselves between a rock and a hard place: Either they stick religiously to the source material and give the audience exactly what is expected, or they break outside of the box and run the risk of enraging fans who decry them for deviating from the gospel.

In 2009, the J.J. Abrams-directed “Star Trek” did the latter. It was the 11th movie to be inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s cultishly adored universe, and yet it wasn’t weighed down by the baggage of the series’ previous entries – if anything, it served as the start of its own sort of sub-series. Abrams took some of the USS Enterprise’s best-known crew members and gave them newer, younger identities, applying a glossy finish to Roddenberry’s creation while still paying tribute to it.

Sure, the movie wasn’t completely reverential – it took liberties with the origin stories of several iconic characters – but it wasn’t blasphemous, either. Yet even the most minor departures from the original can work the most ardent, devoted Trekkies into a lather, and there’s a certain sect of enthusiasts who would have cried foul regardless of how respectful Abrams was to their favorite obsession.

Considering how much ink has been spilled over the ’60s TV series and its countless spin-offs in the past 45 years, and considering how many fan conventions and websites and online message boards are devoted to it, it’s obvious a lot of people are deeply passionate about “Star Trek.” And I guess I can understand how the very notion of a “reboot” could seem like a shameless money-grab, or how a new twist on a reliable formula might be considered sacrilege.

But as someone who only has a rudimentary knowledge of “Star Trek” lore, I found Abrams’ vision to be refreshing, if unexceptional. I walked into the theater four summers ago for another mindless space adventure, and the fact that Abrams delivered something beyond my expectations was a welcome surprise. He certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel, but he did find a new way to spin it.

Comparing Abrams’ “Star Trek” to, say, 1982’s “The Wrath of Khan” (the second, and arguably the best, “Star Trek” movie), is sort of pointless, since the 2009 version is essentially starting over from whole cloth. Of course Chris Pine’s Capt. Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock are going to differ from the characters as made famous by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, and comparing them unfavorably isn’t really fair to how the new actors approach the roles.

The trend of recycling and regurgitating Hollywood trademarks isn’t a new one, but it’s happening a lot more frequently as of late: In the past decade, we’ve seen three different actors transform into the Incredible Hulk, and just five years after Tobey Maguire donned Spider-Man’s suit, they’ve handed it over to Andrew Garfield as if the earlier films never existed.

Abrams had the daunting task of rejuvenating “Star Trek” for a modern, mainstream audience, and it was a financial and critical success – the sequel, subtitled “Into Darkness,” opens this weekend. And it’s been announced that Abrams will now take on an even more demanding project: He’ll be directing the newest episode of the “Star Wars” saga, set for release in 2015.

If any franchise has a more zealous fan base than “Star Trek,” it’s “Star Wars,” and since George Lucas himself has been the subject of vicious fan scrutiny, Abrams has his work cut out for him. Should he copy Lucas’ style to be more consistent with the rest of the series, or should he branch out and go where no director has gone before? Well, it’s pretty likely that he’s damned if he does and he’s damned if he doesn’t. May the Force be with him – he’s going to need it.

Nathan Weinbender is a Spokesman-Review correspondent and movie critic for Spokane Public Radio.

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