The cast of Star Trek Into Darkness (L-R): Chris Pine, Alice Eve, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana and Benedict Cumberbatch at the international premiere. PHOTO: AGENCE FRENCH-PRESSE

Director J.J. Abrams is boldly going where no man has gone before.

With the Star Trek film franchise and the upcoming Star Wars movies in his hands, he is touted by some as the most powerful man in Hollywood.

Also the co-creator of Lost and the man behind Alias, two popular TV series, Abrams, 46, is a prodigious talent.

Star Trek, his 2009 big-screen relaunch of the science-fiction series, told the backstories of the iconic characters James T. Kirk and the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock. It pulled in US$385 million (S$474million) in worldwide ticket sales.

Its follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, which opens in Singapore on May 16, should do even bigger business, as Abrams bids to tell a more epic, more action-packed tale. “We had to approach this as a standalone movie,” he says, “where you didn’t have to see the first movie to enjoy this one.

Star Trek Into Darkness
JJ Abrams on the set of Star Trek Into Darkness. PHOTO: UIP

“Sequels often make mistakes in assuming that you care and that you know that world and the characters, but we approach this as a big, fun action adventure thrill ride with characters that you actually care about, people who make you feel and people who make you laugh.”

With much action spectacle on show in Star Trek Into Darkness – prepare for volcanic eruptions, multiple deaths and the destruction of some enormous space hardware – humour and levity are key components in the film’s mechanics.

The writers have mined plenty of humour, much of it from the characters of Kirk and Scotty, the captain and the chief engineering officer on the USS Enterprise, who are played by Chris Pine, 32, and Simon Pegg, 43.

Aptly, the two actors are on-set pranksters.

The duo struck early, while the crew filmed at the National Ignition Facility in the United States, home to the world’s largest laser and one of the most cutting-edge science facilities on the planet.

“It was like a Star Trek facility of the future,” according to English actor Benedict Cumberbatch (right), who takes on the role of John Harrison, the primary villain in the film, and who fell victim to Pine and Pegg’s pranks.

“Chris and Simon convinced me that because of the environment we were working in, I had to put this neutron cream on my face.”

The 36-year-old duly obliged, administering a series of small dots of white cream to his face, as instructed.

Abrams laughs when reminded of this prank at a press event held in a London hotel.

“Every day, a new actor would arrive and he’d come up to me with these white dots all over his face,” he says, recalling how Pine and Pegg were intercepting the newcomers to tell them their tall tale about neutron cream.

The humour is not out of place for a movie like Star Trek, says Pine: “What I love about Star Trek is that there’s always this glint or gleam in the eye, there’s always a moment for levity. There’s almost a Goonies quality to it with the crew, though it is a lot darker than The Goonies.”

While the first of the re-imagined Star Trek films worked as an origins tale, charting Kirk’s rise in Starfleet, the second is a slightly more complex narrative with both Kirk and Spock suffering in the line of duty.

Chris Pine in Star Trek Into Darkness. PHOTO: UIP

“The first film was about a rebellious young man whose strength was flouting orders and he got the captain’s chair prematurely,” explains Pine of his character’s rise, “and we see in the second film that all that self-assuredness and leading from the gut is actually a very selfish way to act.

“His journey here is one towards humility and Benedict’s character, the villain Harrison, is the one who is able to break him down to the point where he doesn’t know if he’s good enough to do anything.”

Kirk, he adds, is a man who thought, “he was so comfortable leading, and came from a place of strength, and when that’s reflected back to him and his strengths become his weaknesses, it’s a very scary thing”.

“It was a challenge, especially compared to the first one where I got to paint with primary colours. On this one, I got a bigger palette.”

As its title suggests, the latest Star Trek movie edges towards the dark side.

Cumberbatch’s Harrison engages in terrorist activities, which prompt Starfleet members, and especially Kirk, to seek vengeance.

“We were concerned when we first pitched it that we might be told to hold back on the terrorism angle for all the obvious reasons,” says the film’s co-writer Damon Lindelof, “but we were allowed to run with it and it turns out international audiences responded to it.”

Science-fiction movies, it seems, are thriving in the dark – whether it is director Christopher Nolan’s re-imagined Batman series or the proliferation of post-apocalyptic titles such as the rebooted Total Recall (2012), Tom Cruise’s Oblivion (2013) or the upcoming piece from District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp, Elysium.

“That may be the case,” concedes Abrams, “and especially certain films, such as Nolan’s work, which is among my favourite recent films.”

“But I think that in a way, the Star Trek Into Darkness title may be misleading – it seems like this is going to turn it into grim proceedings. But there is no darkness without light.”

Zachary Quinto in Star Trek Into Darkness. PHOTO: UIP

“And it’s going into darkness, which implies that the characters who go there are characters who are relatable, funny, and the audience is the proxy.”

The terror on screen comes through Cumberbatch’s character, “and to me, the challenge that you, the audience, are faced with, and in some ways, if you look at the theme of the film, you would say it’s the reality we live in every day”.

The Star Trek films, Abrams adds, are not aimed solely at “Trekkies”, as hardcore Star Trek fans are known.

“The audience is any moviegoer, people who want to go on an adventure,” says the film-maker. “The audience, for us, could not be strictly Star Trek fans; it would limit what the story was about and who would see it.

“So the idea was to take the spirit of what was done originally 50 years ago (in the first TV series) and apply it to a more muscular, fun story, a swashbuckling vibe with all the intellectual debate, the moral quandaries.”

Star Trek Into Darkness opens in Singapore on May 16.

This story was originally published on May 8, 2013 in The Straits Times. Read the full story here.