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Byline: Bob Strauss, Staff Writer

HOLLYWOOD: New movie joins ranks of film franchises that get a makeover. "They're calling it a reboot," Leonard Nimoy, 79, says with the same quizzical lilt to his voice that Mr. Spock used whenever the classic "Star Trek" character encountered something illogical.

There is perfect Hollywood logic, though, to rebooting a dormant franchise like "Star Trek." (The new movie opens Friday, restarting the multipronged sci-fi saga with the maiden voyage of the original Enterprise.)

Both the first blond James Bond introduced in 2006's "Casino Royale" and the Dark Knight iteration that commenced with "Batman Begins" (2005) commercially revitalized their franchises by starting over from scratch and have been among the most critically acclaimed genre movies of the decade.

And just about every cruddy horror film franchise started in the 1970s and '80s has profited in recent years from a slicker, back-to-square-one revamp.

For the lucrative summer movie season that launched this weekend, extensive re-imagining - if not the total overhaul that the "Star Trek" movie makes - is key to some big-series entries.

This weekend's season kickoff, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," is, technically, a prequel to the highly successful trilogy of superhero films. But the focus of this fourth "X" movie is more concentrated, telling the back story of Hugh Jackman's metal-clawed anti-hero rather than being an ensemble piece.

That said, "Wolverine" introduces a half-dozen beloved characters from X-Men comic books to the big screen to facilitate what Alex Young, co-president of production for 20th Century Fox, hopes will be be "many offshoots and extensions of the franchise."

For its part, "Terminator Salvation" (opening May 21) takes place in 2018, after the events of the three previous films. But thanks to the series' built-in time-travel factor, it's also the introduction of the hero of the first "Terminator," Kyle Reese, and of a certain T-800 cyborg whose original portrayer has since found other work.

Something between a sequel and a prequel, "Salvation" may be cinema's first tweequel - not a full-definition reboot but different enough to refresh a series that was running out of energy before Arnold became governor.

Of course, the summer box office depends on franchise entries, and there's the usual load of straightforward ones this year: "Angels and Demons," "Night at the Museum II," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."

But it's the heavily re-worked films that are generating the most early excitement - especially after last summer's "Batman Begins" sequel, "The Dark Knight," rode director Christopher Nolan's more serious approach to the second-highest movie gross on record.

One reason for the success of reboots is that they require more imaginative engagement than your standard "X-Men IV" or "Star Trek 400."

"In the case of 'Star Trek,' I didn't look at it like a chance to do another reboot," said J.J. Abrams, producer of TV's "Lost" and director of the new "Trek" movie.

"I considered it a great script. There were great characters, the story was really fun, the pace, the action, the adventure. It all felt worth doing.

"I'm sure the studio looks at it more bottom line-oriented, which is their job," Abrams added. "But the genius of something like Warner Bros. meeting up with Chris Nolan is that the studio had a monetary objective that was understandable, and Chris Nolan has a passion for that character and that world that transcends any monetary goal.

"We've all seen franchise entries that have been anemic, and my guess is that, more often than not, those movies were made by people who may have thought it was a cool job, but didn't love it as much as I loved this script."

No lifelong "Trekkie," Abrams relied on writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to make the movie both satisfying to the property's devoted fans and a launching pad for its new interpretation.

"We didn't see how to do both, frankly, for a long time," admitted Orci, who is a hard-core Trekkie. "We wanted to do the origin, but it's heresy to recast these beloved characters. It wasn't until we had the idea of making Leonard Nimoy's Spock, essentially, the reason why the two universes collide."

"If you want to, quote-unquote, reboot, we all know the fates of these characters, so how do we ever put them in real jeopardy?" said Kurtzman, less of a loyalist to the earlier shows. "But we thought of an idea that freed us up to begin new, five-year missions while being the origin story that, oddly, even the old versions of 'Trek' never told."

Rebooting is inherently a tricky proposition. Not all new ideas are narratively or commercially successful, as the underperforming "Superman Returns" recently proved.

"Probably the biggest risk of doing a reboot is touching something that fans would consider untouchable," said Scott Robson, editor in chief of AOL's "You run the risk of it-better-be-really-really-good if you're going to do that."

Producer and former Warner Bros. executive Dan Lin, who not only made "Terminator Salvation" but is working on upcoming movie reboots of the couldn't-be-more-different Sherlock Holmes and Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, noted that many rules apply to a successful relaunch.

"The big take-away is that the underlying material has to have something special about it," Lin said. "Then, it's all about the characters and bringing in the right director who can update it for this modern day and make it feel relevant.

"The big question to be answered is, why reboot it?"

While echoing some of Lin's observations, Overture Films' COO Danny Rosett, whose company is jumping on the horror franchise reboot bandwagon with an update of George Romero's 1970s cult item "The Crazies," cautioned that audiences will accept changes in their familiar franchises only up to a point.

"You always want to offer audiences something original and everybody talks about how important it is to avoid predictability," he said. "But audiences keep coming back to things that are familiar to them. That's why people keep doing remakes and sequels."

Fox's Young, who has films about the early days of the first X-Men team and the villainous Magneto in development, says it's a matter of finesse.

"If you treat these things well and you're not cynical about them and not just taking the audience's love for these characters for granted, the audience should come away feeling like they've got something new and fresh and that we've expanded their understanding a character in a great way," Young said. "Then they'll want even more."

Having come out of retirement to don Spock's ears for the first time in 17 years to make the new movie, Nimoy put it most succinctly: "It was clear to me that 'Star Trek' was running out of gas. I thought this was a chance to give it a fresh shot."

Bob Strauss, 818-713-3670
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 3, 2009
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