In his second voyage as "Star Trek's" Capt. James T. Kirk, Chris Pine is more at ease in the iconic role.
Pine was just 28 when he starred in 2009's hit "Star Trek" reboot (William Shatner was 35 when the TV series began). In the new movie, "Star Trek Into Darkness," which opened Thursday, Pine's Kirk is still in many ways a raw cadet rather than a seasoned Starfleet commander. His approach emphasizes the character's likability, impetuous temper and awareness of his shortcomings -- although he's still a pro with the ladies.
Speaking by telephone from London, the actor said those limitations and flaws are precisely what he enjoys about the character.
"I like it that he's not a caped crusader. He doesn't know how to fly or any of the other fun tricks that those Marvel guys get to do. But he gets to battle his own demons, like all of us do. It's fun to define a character that at first one might assume will remain the brash, cocky upstart but is very soon face-to-face with doubt, vulnerability, fallibility."
In one atypical exchange, Kirk confides to his good friend Spock, "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. I only know what I can do."
"He has anxiety about whether he has the qualities to be a leader," Pine said. "To have the captain, one of the heroes of the film, be so weak and so vulnerable for a great stretch of the story makes for interesting stuff."
He added, "The fun of it is to do that and pepper it with nods to Shatner that make me smile, and I think will appeal to ardent fans."
With four years passing between the first and second "Star Trek" installments, an unusually long gap for blockbuster franchise films, Pine said he was delighted, and pleasantly surprised, when the follow-up script finally arrived. Part adventure, part comedy, part character ensemble, part sociopolitical commentary, the story draws on the many threads that gave Gene Roddenberry's science-fiction landmark its enduring popularity.
Director J.J. Abrams (of TV's "Lost" and "Mission: Impossible 3") "opened up 'Star Trek' to a whole new generation. It's reaching fans that might not necessarily approach something like science fiction with open arms," Pine said. "There's enough in this for women, let's say, (who) want more of a deeper psychological drama anchoring it, which it has, and romance, which it has. There's the humor of the original series, the levity which I always think is a joy to get to do. That's so important to have, even though the name of our movie is 'Into Darkness.'"
The Star Trek universe has always featured parallels to contemporary political realities, and the latest installment continues that tradition. With plot points concerning drone missile attacks and urban terrorism, the film evokes concerns about U.S. foreign policy and carries unanticipated parallels to the recent Boston bombing.
The film "is representative of the kind of terrorism we've come to know recently," Pine said. English actor Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock"), who plays Kirk's nemesis, growls, "You think your world is safe? It is an illusion. A comforting lie."
The menacing character "knows how to use fear as a weapon," Pine said. "Our film is fundamentally good entertainment, but one of the great things about 'Star Trek,' beginning with the original series, is that it could talk about a great many things more appropriate to the world we live in and mask it with this fantastical, futuristic world. This gets back to that Roddenberry spirit, and this film says a lot about how one deals with anger, with wanting to inflict violence, with the cycle of revenge. Has it worked at all or not? What does it achieve? In our film the characters flirt with the dark side, do a dance with the devil" represented by Cumberbatch's character.
"Kirk gets carried away by this bloodlust, by this need for revenge," he said. "Roddenberry's almost pacifist spirit, I think, is a healthy one to put out in the world."
As always, Starfleet wins the day when the crew pulls together, demonstrating a camaraderie that Abrams carefully engineered through his choice of actors. Pine and Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, have known each other for years. For other key roles Abrams "cast people who he suspected would get along," Pine said. "After all, he was presenting an ostensible family on screen."
Unlike many of his film-acting peers, Pine has appeared on stage frequently, starring in such heavyweight material as Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," Neil Labute's "Fat Pig" and Beau Willimon's "Farragut North." While he next will revive Tom Clancy's quick-witted CIA analyst in the December spy thriller "Jack Ryan," he said he doesn't consider himself the Savior of Stalled Hollywood Franchises.
"I've just been really lucky that I've been offered two great stories to tell, and lucky to be surrounded by people I have great respect for."