By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - Director J.J. Abrams is hoping to persuade mainstream film audiences to boldly go where they have never gone before and embrace the next installment of "Star Trek", a franchise usually reserved for sci-fi geeks.
The man behind the cult TV series "Alias" and "Lost" told Reuters he initially hesitated when Viacom's Paramount Pictures asked him to take on the film series, whose installments in 1998 and 2002 failed to draw crowds.
But then he worked out how to make Star Trek appeal to a broader audience, by forgetting its creaking legacy and focusing on the drama.
His first attempt to "reboot" the epic with 2009's "Star Trek" was a critical success, though analysts were disappointed with foreign box office sales of about $130 million.
Now he is hoping to push even further towards the final frontier with the 3D sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness", the 12th in the series, opening in Britain on May 9 and the United States on May 17.
"The idea was to make a movie that works on its own terms ... This (film) was not meant to be like an in-joke. This is very much for moviegoers and not just Star Trek fans," said Abrams, wearing his trademark thick-rimmed black glasses.
The plot focuses on the crew's emotions and moral dilemmas to make "an action adventure thriller .. a little more visceral and thrilling", he said.
Most hardcore Star Trek fans welcomed Abrams' involvement in the series; he already had a huge geek fan base thanks to his TV and film back-catalogue. But Abrams himself was far less enthusiastic about the franchise when he first encountered it.
"NEVER GOT IT AS A KID"
"I never really got it as a kid. I never really understood Star Trek. It felt very talky and still to me. I have come to appreciate what it is and what it means."
Since working his magic on "Star Trek", he has already been asked to revive another sci-fi behemoth. In January, Walt Disney Co said he would direct "Star Wars: Episode VII", giving hope to that franchise's long-suffering fans who were disappointed by the last three installments.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" again casts Chris Pine as the womanizing Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock, a mixed-race human-Vulcan who lives by the laws of logic.
The 23rd-century action starts with an attack on Starfleet's base in London by the one-man killing machine John Harrison, played by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as the detective Sherlock Holmes in the BBC drama "Sherlock".
The crew of the Enterprise are soon face-to-face with their old foes the Klingons, but things are not what they seem.
Cumberbatch, 36, said it was daunting to be a newcomer on the Star Trek cast, but he bulked up and threw himself into the role of the villain.
"The 10-year-old in me relished throwing people around the set, jumping and flying through space and the air, and running through glass walls," he told Reuters.
Critics have not been as glowing in their praise for Abrams' second Star Trek movie as for his first.
"People are unlikely to charge out of the cinema with quite the same level of glee as they did in 2009; but this is certainly an astute, exhilarating concoction," wrote Andrew Culver in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Abrams said no official discussions have yet started on a third movie but he would be "love to be in that conversation" if there was the demand for another.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Andrew Heavens)