"Star Trek" has always been about more than a spaceship crew hurtling through the cosmos -- over the decades, the sci-fi series in all its forms has tackled earthly issues such as race, gender and the Vietnam War.
When it comes to shining a spotlight on contemporary conflicts, the film and television franchise's newest entry, the movie "Star Trek Into Darkness," is no exception.
Directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and Roberto Orci, "Into Darkness," which opens Thursday, sees the return of Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine), Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew, as they face a new villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).
As with so much in the fictional worlds Abrams creates ("Lost," "Super 8"), many details around the movie have been cloaked in mystery, including the true identity of Cumberbatch's character. But on a breezy afternoon in March, on the roof of a Hollywood photo studio, Pine and Quinto shared insight into John Harrison -- and the movie's present-day parallels.
"This film is about earthbound terror," said Pine, speaking weeks before the real-life bombing at the Boston Marathon. "It's about terrorism, about issues we as human beings in 2013 deal with every day, about the exploitation of fear to take advantage of a population, about physical violence and destruction but also psychological manipulation. John Harrison is a terrorist in the mold of those we've become accustomed to in this day and age."
Much of the humanity in Abrams' 2009 "Star Trek" origins movie, which was the 11th film in the franchise, came from the rivalry and ultimately the friendship that developed between reckless young Kirk and analytical young Spock.
The new film from Paramount Pictures is rich with action -- Kirk and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) race through fields of scarlet foliage, a Starfleet ship rises from the ocean, Spock descends into an erupting volcano.
"You can't even imagine how elaborate this set was," Quinto said of the volcano scene, for which he wore a cumbersome suit. "Lava rocks, smoke, fire machines, sparks. I had to communicate with a speaker inside my helmet. ... It was meditative in a way. I got real quiet and real still."
But apart from the action, the movie is again rooted in its well-defined characters, Quinto noted.
"In this movie, Kirk really needs to learn how to be a captain, not just sit in the captain's chair, and Spock needs to learn how to be a friend, not just be accountable and reliable and responsible," Quinto said. "In the first movie, it was about all of us coming together, unifying to defeat an enemy. This movie is more about the way an enemy splits us apart. We have to divide in order to conquer in this film."
In conversation, Pine and Quinto share an easy affinity -- when Pine noted that they had been able to avoid being typecast despite playing such memorable characters, Quinto raised his eyebrows. "This from the guy who doesn't have to wear pointy ears," he said.
Over the years, Pine and Quinto's off-screen friendship has helped them establish an on-screen rapport -- the two met before they were cast in "Star Trek," at an event writer-producer Norman Lear organized to showcase his copy of the Declaration of Independence.
"I remember feeling, as I got to know Chris more, so impressed by his intelligence, which isn't always the case with such a traditional leading man," Quinto said. "I remember being pleasantly, not surprised, but ..."
"You thought I was just a dumb blond," Pine interrupted. "Actually, I have many more Spockian qualities than I do Kirkian qualities. We were two peas in a pod," he said of Quinto, "in that we think about things way more than we should. We analyze."