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Star Trek Proved There's a J.J. Abrams Connected Universe (That's More Than Just Greg Grunberg)

Slushos for everyone

Kelly Connolly

As a student of the J.J. Abrams Connected Universe, I wake up screaming thinking about the time when the public discourse around J.J. Abrams' directorial style started and ended at "lens flare." The outcry around one guy's love of a good lens flare was more glaring than any of his actual lens flares, which, for the record, his wife has since put a stop to, so everyone can just start stanning Katie McGrath and call it a day.

Anyway, my most deeply held belief is that J.J. Abrams' Lens Flare Period overshadowed his far more interesting Slusho Period, which began when Michael Vartan's Vaughn offered Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow a Slusho ("they're delicious") during a covert meeting in a convenience store in the second episode of Alias. Slusho references have since become a calling card in Abrams' work, including the Cloverfield series, Super 8, Fringe, and Abrams' first Star Trek movie, which turns 10 on May 8.

Though Slusho has been the subject of Cloverfield-adjacent online conspiracy theories, it began as literally just a slushie. What's become representative of Abrams' love of unsolvable mysteries started with his interest in giving characters moments to just be people, and to reach out to one another, in the midst of Serious and Urgent Business. This is the duality of J.J. Abrams: His signature style is as evident in the big, dramatic twists as it is in the humanity of his characters.

At the height of the Slusho Period came the 2009 Star Trek film, which ties in with his other work in sweeping themes and small cameos alike. In honor of the movie's 10th anniversary, here's how Star Trek fits into the J.J. Abrams Connected Universe.

The casting strategy:
With all due respect to The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, it was Star Trek that launched Chris Pine to leading man status. The film, cast by regular J.J. Abrams collaborators April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg, works by following the same casting playbook he also put to use in Alias and, later, his Star Wars films: The biggest name isn't the lead. Abrams puts industry veterans in supporting roles to elevate promising younger talents at the center of the story. Here, it's the late Leonard Nimoy who, as Spock Prime, gives Star Trek most of its emotional heft while a charismatic Pine shows off his comedic chops.

The cast and crew:
Both in front of and behind the lens, Abrams called on his most valuable players to make Star Trek pop. Greg Grunberg continued his streak as the director's good luck charm with a voice cameo as Kirk's stepdad. (Grunberg's other Abrams credits include Felicity, Alias, Lost, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek Beyond, The Cloverfield Paradox, and being his childhood friend.) Alias patriarch Victor Garber appeared in a deleted scene as a Klingon interrogator (justice for Klingon Victor Garber), but even without the former Jack Bristow, Alias fans could still spy plenty of familiar faces in the cast, including Rachel Nichols, Amanda Foreman, Oz Perkins, Faran Tahir (who also appeared in Lost), and Clifton Collins Jr. (who would later appear in Westworld).

Offscreen, Abrams assembled an equally familiar team. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof produced the film, which was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, writers and producers on Alias and Fringe. Composer Michael Giacchino, who also worked on Alias, Lost, Fringe, Mission: Impossible III, and Super 8, gave Star Trek its brassy sound, and regular Abrams collaborators Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey edited.

The multiverse:
One of the smartest aspects of the 2009 Star Trek is also the trippiest -- and the most quintessentially J.J. Abrams. Rather than frame the story as a straightforward prequel, the movie uses time travel to create an alternate timeline for Pine's Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew: a clever way to preserve the integrity of the original series while still freeing up the movie franchise to move in its own direction. Parallel universes and diverging timelines are also key elements of Abrams' Fringe, which featured Leonard Nimoy in a recurring role (his debut episode, the Season 1 finale, aired just four days after Star Trek premiered). In its final season, Lost toyed with those same ideas in its "flash sideways" timeline, which imagined an alternate reality for the characters only to reveal, in the end, that this new reality was actually the afterlife.

Abrams has been interested since his Alias days in how free will and fate interact. Those ideas are only magnified by time travel and alternate timelines, which push characters to question whether the future is fixed while also facing the lives they could have lived if they'd made different choices. As Abrams' shows dove into more unapologetically sci-fi territory, a Star Trek that boldly went into a new dimension felt like the logical next step -- a big-screen extension of themes he'd been perfecting on TV.

Red matter:
Only J.J. Abrams could find more than one use for a floating red liquid ball. Star Trek's red matter, which Spock Prime uses to create a black hole to absorb a supernova, echoes Alias' Mueller Device, which also inspired an element of Mission: Impossible III. Production designer Scott Chambliss, another Abrams regular, told Star Trek Magazine, "The 'big red ball' has a lot of resonance for J.J. and I: We have one in virtually everything we do. It started with the Alias pilot. I always look at a script and wonder what the big red ball is going to be this time."

The number 47 pops up across Abrams' work -- in some stories, it has mythological significance (in Alias, the number was a favorite of prophet Milo Rambaldi), while in others (like Fringe and, later, The Force Awakens) it's more of an Easter egg. In Star Trek, it's both. The number 47 has been an in-joke in the franchise since The Next Generation, giving every "47" in the 2009 movie two layers of meaning: It's where J.J. Abrams' history and Star Trek's history intersect. 47 is truly the Slusho of numbers.

Star Trek is available to stream on Amazon.

Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine; Star Trek

Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine; Star Trek

Spyglass/Bad Robot