He's fearless, cunning, and the greatest playa in the Alpha Quadrant. But I don't for one second believe that the new James T. Kirk is someone you would follow into a life-or-death situation. Spoilers ahead...
Before I start, let me be clear: I loved the new Trek, numerous plot holes and all, and pretty much the whole movie worked for me, not just as Star Trek, but as a movie. I would have probably liked it better if it'd used all that inventiveness and emotional charge to create a totally new space-opera franchise, but it actually made me think Trek still had some lingering potential. But the one thing that bugged me was this new Kirk, who didn't just seem like the admittedly dickish Shatner Kirk as a young man, but a much more annoying frat-boy-ish version.
It's also funny, because I would not have described myself as an admirer of Shatner's version of Kirk. Shatner's Kirk was abrasive, mean to his underlings, bombastic, prone to insanely long speeches, burst into fits of laughter in his command chair for no reason, and cast sleazy illuminated-eye gazes at any woman who wandered into his orbit. I had a couple of bosses who reminded me way too much of Kirk, which is one reason I made him one of the seven types of bad bosses in Star Trek.
But over time, Shatner's portrayal has grown on me again, and I've regained a bit of the Shatner-love I felt as a child. The way he purrs "Steady as she goes" when the Enterprise is maneuvering into a tight spot. That uplifting inspirational message he leaves for Spock and McCoy to get them to stop bickering when he's presumed dead in "The Tholian Web." Sure, Shatner was a dick, but he was also a leader. I can't believe I'm praising Shatner's Kirk, and I'm going to stop now.
It's entirely possible that PineKirk will grow on me, either in the inevitable repeat viewings of this movie, or in the also-inevitable sequels. But for now, I have a few major problems with him: 1) He's kind of a meh James Dean clone. 2) He has a capital-D Destiny. 3) He's not as nerdy as Shatner's Kirk. 4) He gets a totally undeserved promotion, because the people in charge just like him.
1) He's a rebel without a cause.
The new movie makes a pretty strong case for Spock being a unique character in the history of science fiction... and meanwhile, it turns Kirk into a cookie-cutter James Dean ripoff. It's all shorthand: the slouch, the motorcycle, the brawling, the way his voice tends to creep into the soprano register when he's being extra dickish. The New Yorker put it best when it said Chris Pine
struggles with a screenplay, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, that could have been downloaded from a software program entitled "Make Your Own Annoying Rebel." Sample line: Kirk is hailed as "the only genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest" by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who exhorts him to put aside his brawling and enlist in Starfleet. Jim rolls up next morning on a motorbike, hung over, with bruises from the night before, as surly as Steve McQueen; but roll up he does.
Actually, Pine's Kirk aims for James Dean and hits Fonzie instead. He's a little too jolly for Dean, a little too self-consciously "bad boy." He's more of a class clown, and you can see why everyone thinks he's just trying to get attention again, when he bursts into the Bridge to announce that the Vulcan disaster is a trap. I fully understood why Spock wanted to dump the smug jerk on the first ice planet he went past.
2) He has a capital-D Destiny.
One thing I liked about the original Captain Kirk was that he was the best captain in Starfleet, not becuase he'd been anointed as a young man, but because he was just the best. It was a singularly old-school idea of heroism: He came up through the ranks, he passed the same tests as everybody else, and he just happened to turn out the best.
In the new movie, though, Kirk's great destiny is pounded into us, and it's like a pillar of light singles him out from amongst the riffraff in that Iowa bar. It's the boring old "Hero's Journey" all over again, with a heavy dose of Luke Skywalker. Some people are just special, and they're better than you and me from the beginning, just because they're so special. Captain Pike pretty much turns to the camera and tells us that James Kirk has the mark of greatness upon him. Later on, it's Leonard Nimoy's turn to intone that Kirk will become the greatest thing since self-slicing bread.
To be fair, though, the movie pokes fun at this idea a bit - Nimoy tells Kirk it's his "destiny" to go back to the Enterprise alone, but later in the movie, Nimoy basically winks and admits he only said that because he knew Kirk would like it.
The hammering on Kirk's awesome destiny is also part of the fetish for origin stories, as the New Yorker piece points out. It's like Kirk isn't just a guy, he's a superhero, like Spider-Man. And he's chosen for something greater than just making sandwiches in an Iowa sandwich shop, because he's special. Weirdly, the more the movie tries to tell me how special Kirk is, the less special I actually think he is.
3) He's just not as nerdy as Shatner's Kirk.
How many times did you hear Shatner gush about how much he enjoyed reading someone's work at the Academy? Seriously, it's in like every other episode. Usually, to be fair, Kirk gushes about reading someone's work at the Academy and then punches him five minutes later. (Well, at least that was true for Captain Garth. In the case of the guy who decided to turn an entire alien race into Nazis, Kirk just has McCoy shoot him up with heroin or something.) But the point is, Kirk was a nerd. And maybe even a bit of a wonk. He loved to geek out about computers, strategy, the difference between a soldier and a diplomat, poetry and physics. (Let's not even get into how he was pwned by a skinny Irish guy wearing a blue rayon raver shirt.)
Pine's version, meanwhile, looks like... well, I mentioned "frat boy" already, didn't I? That's pretty much what I keep coming back to. He just sort of oozes self-regard and know-nothingness. Watching him lurch around the screen, you can't help imagining him strong-arming Chekov into doing his homework for him. Here's a telling sign: in the scene where Kirk is actually trying to provoke Spock into showing emotion so he can take over command, you can't really see any difference in Kirk's behavior. It's not like he suddenly becomes more obnoxious. He can't, because his obnoxiousness dial has been turned all the way up, right from the start.
Oh, and I'm just going to come out and say it: the way he cheats on the Kobayashi Maru was not brilliant, it was just dickish. I always figured "reprogramming the simulation" involved adding some clever loophole. Not just adding a game cheat that turned all the Klingons into Klingoffs.
4) He gets a totally undeserved promotion.
Actually, he gets two. First he gets bumped up from "academically suspended cadet" to "first officer," when the Enterprise is still full of people better qualified than him. (I know the crew is mostly cadets, but Sulu is right there. So is Uhura. They, at least, finished Starfleet.) And then he promotes himself, to Captain. He starts sitting in the Captain's chair before he's even made his power-grab.
The moment that's in all the trailers, where Bones says "We've got no captain, and no first officer to replace him," and Kirk says "Yeah we do," then sits in the chair, is the worst. It doesn't feel like Kirk finally stepping into the role he belongs in - the authority he's earned - it just feels like a self-centered jackass making a power grab.
There's something fundamentally unsympathetic about watching a self-satisfied weasel get a promotion he didn't earn. It's just hard to get around that, really.
So what's the deal?
So why is the new Kirk such a lout? We've been wondering for months - since it was one of the movie's main selling points, in all the trailers and promotional materials. "Now with a douchier Kirk!" Back in November, we thought we had an answer: in this new timeline, Kirk was mistreated by his Uncle Frank.
Last fall, an actor named Brad William Henke went around giving interviews in which he said he played Kirk's Uncle Frank, who raised Kirk after his dad died on board the U.S.S. Kelvin. And Henke hinted that Uncle Frank was an alcoholic, who subjected young James Kirk to torments worthy of Gul Madred, the "five lights" guy. And that's why Kirk felt the need to trash Uncle Frank's pricess Corvette, and that's why Kirk winds up a brawling barfly who needs a motivational speech to get him to join Starfleet.
Except, of course, Henke isn't in the movie. There is an Uncle Frank, who's played by Greg Grunberg, and consists only of a voice yelling at Kirk about destroying his priceless car. So scratch that explanation.
The movie, as screened, doesn't really replace the "abusive Uncle Frank" backstory with anything else, except the vague hints that Kirk grew up without a real father. But judging from all the interviews Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have given, it's pretty clear that they just think this is who Kirk is/was. Shatner's Kirk started out as a know-nothing moron, and then matured somehow into the slightly more cerebral version we saw on television.
I'm sure people will accuse me of being a Star Trek fan who's annoyed that the new Kirk doesn't live up to the old Kirk. And there's maybe a bit of that here. But I'd say at least 80 percent of my annoyance with the new Kirk just comes from a general dislike for seeing douchebags on screen. And a distaste for the weaselly generation of man-boy heroes represented by Tobey Maguire, Shia LaBoeuf, and now Chris Pine. (Although Pine is more self-satisifed than either Maguire or LaBoeuf, he shares the same weird "grinning and talking in a high-pitched voice" thing with them.) It reminds me of the early 1990s, when ever female hero had to have "attitude," which translated to "pouting and making speeches about how boys are dumb." Now it's the guys who have "attitude," and it's just as annoying.
And it's especially galling in a science fiction movie, which ought to be at least somewhat, you know, about science. Having a hero who seems so profoundly uninterested in ideas is a bit of a downer.