Click to viewWhen I was a kid, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the face of science fiction, and he always freaked me out. His body was so overstuffed and sausagey, his eyes so piggy. And he seemed like the embodiment of the Reaganite swagger, even before George Bush Sr. started trying to talk like him. And yet, he starred in more big science fiction films than any other actor back then. And recently, I've been appreciating his legacy and his over-the-top performances. I just watched every Schwarzenegger science fiction movie in one giant marathon, and I've finally learned to love my Governor. It's a weird moment to be appreciating Arnie. For one thing, it's the run-up to a big election, when my fellow liberals are gleefully contemplating the destruction of GOP politicians big and small. And he hasn't exactly been a heroic success as governor of California, saddling the state with more debt just as we were roaring towards another economic sugar-crash.
And Arnie's style of action movies are out of style lately. Today's action heroes are more like Will Smith or Jason Statham, regular guys who often seem a bit out of their depth. (Both of those guys have bulked up lately, but still look a bit wiry and gawky, compared to Arnie and the other body-builder action stars of the 80s. And they seem grouchy and occasionally cocky, not larger-than-life like Arnie.) We've almost gotten used to seeing weaselly stars like Shia LaBeouf smirk their way through giant-robot movies, so it's weird to look back and see an Ubermensch who is never wrong, except when he's programmed to be bad. But I feel as though a new round of Schwarzenegger love is over due — and not just because he starred in some of the most memorable science fiction movies of the past 20 years. Watching eight or nine Arnie movies in a row, I'm really struck by how much manic energy he puts into everything he does. Being a killer cyborg, fighting a camouflaged alien hunter, dealing with his own clone... whatever it is, Arnie is 100 percent there. His eyes squint or bulge enormously, his neck tendons expand, and his mouth? His mouth is a whole separate actor in itself, along with his jaw. In a difficult spot, Arnie's teeth grit into a grimace the size of a Humvee. When he's thrilled, his open-mouthed smile appears about to devour the camera. Seriously, at the end of Total Recall, when Arnie has brought a breathable atmosphere to Mars, here's what I wrote in my notes: "There is AIR on Mars now, and Arnie is going to EAT it like a cheeseburger." His mouth is that huge, that full of appetite.
Look at those teeth! Arnie brings conviction, in other words. Other actors can concentrate on being understated, or relatable. Anybody can be naturalistic, and try to build a real persona in the midst of unreal events. But Arnold is one of the few actors who ups the ante. He's in the midst of a crazy, unreal situation... and he's the most unreal thing about it. He totally believes in the space monster or the evil clonemasters. But more importantly, he's bigger than they are. You could drop a mothership next to Arnie, and he would still be bigger than it is. He's larger than unreal life. The other thing that really jumps out at me about Ahnuld after watching so many of his films: he's the good guy, in a way that we don't see so much any more. Sure, he's occasionally kind of a bully, and he enjoys laughing at people who are physically weaker than him, including most women. But in every one of his movies, there's at least one moment where he chooses to do the right thing in a moment of jaw-jutting drama. He's willing to let his head be cut open. He won't shoot his own clone. In Total Recall, he clings to his identity as the white knight, even after he's told he's really an agent of evil. In Predator, he snarls that he doesn't do black ops. Etc. etc. etc. He's flamboyantly moral, even if he's not always a nice guy. In short, he's everything I used to wish John McCain could be: genuine, honorable, and a little bit of a maniac in the cause of justice. Maybe it's time for a return to Schwarzenegger values in our big scifi adventures? Here's my rundown on every Arnold Schwarzenegger science fiction movie, based on having just watched all of them in one go. (I seriously watched Arnie while blogging about other stuff, watched in bed on my laptop, and even took my laptop into the bathroom and watched while I brushed my teeth. I dreamed about Arnie last night.)
The movie: Terminator (1984) Arnie plays: A killer cyborg from the future, sent back to the 1980s to kill Sarah Connor, who will give birth to a leader of the resistance against the machine oppressors. His performance: It's a slower, more purposeful Arnold, moving in slow-motion a lot of the time. He starts out not just naked, but shining in the blue light, all of his 10,000 muscles glowing bright indigo. His hair is super 1980s, almost a yuppie hairstyle, and he puts on disco jacket to stalk around frowning at everyone. When he closes in on Sarah Connor in the nightclub, he sways his pelvis like he's preparing to lambada with her, and his eyes bulge enormously when he shoots his gun. When he says his famous line, "I'll be back," he leans in slowly, as if he's sharing a personal confidence with the random cop. Taking away Arnie's eyebrows later in the film poses an extra acting challenge, but he's up to it. He scowls and grimaces even harder, and makes his forehead gnarl like an old tree. It's almost a mercy when he gets big sunglasses and doesn't have to act with his eyes any more. The movie: Predator (1987) Arnie plays: A super-commando named "Dutch," who's the best there is at what he does... just don't blow smoke up his ass. He's sent to the jungle on a bogus rescue mission, and winds up facing an inhuman killer that comes out of nowhere. His performance: Our first glimpse of the jolly Arnie comes at the start of the movie, as he spontaneously arm-wrestles in mid-air with his old friend and they compare each other's bulging muscles. But once he gets to the jungle, he's grim and intense, believable as a combat veteran in a tough spot. Delivers lines like "You cooked up a story and dropped the six of us into a meat-grinder" with gusto. He squints a lot, until finally his eyes bug out and he screams, "Nooooooooooooo! Get to the choppa!" Covering Arnie with thick mud poses another acting challenge, but he overcomes: his eyes go into overtime, since they're all you can see of him. Arnie's peepers roll around, bug out, and finally explode out of their sockets. "C'mawn! I'm here! C'mawn! Kill me!" At the end, it's a thoughtful, withdrawn Arnie being lifted off in the choppa.
The movie: The Running Man (1987) Arnie plays: Ben Richards, a man accused of a crime he didn't commit, who has to survive his "public execution," staged in the form of a televised game show, in this Stephen King adaptation. His performance: Arnie is jutting and gritting his jaw more than ever in this film. He seems a bit more sadistic, especially when he's bullying the woman he takes hostage, and later when he's killing and mutilating the thugs that are after him. But he gets a great moment where he says he won't kill a defenseless human being. It's very Captain Kirk in "The Arena." He stares intensely a LOT. He spends a lot of the movie being flat-out pissed at the people who set him up, lied to him, and put him in this fake game show, and it works. He's not just pissed, he's outraged.
The movie: Total Recall (1990) Arnie plays: Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who pays to have false memories of a Martian adventure implanted in his head, only to find himself on a real Martian adventure. Or is it? His performance: There's no ramping up. Arnie's eyes and tongue are bursting with energy from the first scene, where he dreams about Mars. He has the yuppie hair again. He grimaces constantly. In one scene, his "wife" kicks him in the crotch like 20 times, and he just keeps the same grimace he had before she started. He looks crotch-kicked pretty much the whole time in this movie. "Shit! Shit!" He yells. Is Arnie constipated? Watching Arnie at the end, clinging to a rope over an abyss and his grimace gets bigger and bigger, I'm hit with a thought — he really is the big-screen version of William Shatner. The movie: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Arnie plays: Another killer cyborg from the future. But this time he's been reprogrammed to protect Sarah Connor and her son, John Connor. He winds up being a sort of father figure to the troubled John. His performance: He's actually more mellow, and yet more robotic, than he was in Terminator. Instead of just wreaking mayhem, he has to do stuff like stand on one foot and have long conversations with John Connor over humanity's self-destructiveness. He transforms into a sort of grumpy daddy halfway through, and seems a bit world-weary. More of an understated performance, and it totally scores.
The movie: Junior (1994) Arnie plays: Dr. Alex Hesse, a scientist who agrees to carry a pregnancy inside his own manly body, as part of a fertility experiment. His performance: Oh dear. At some point in the 1990s, somebody thought it would be a great idea to explore the chemistry between Danny DeVito's wise-guy and Arnold's big stiff. And it was a horrendous, multi-movie mistake. For one thing, they have no chemistry. For another, Arnold should be the wise-cracking guy, not Danny. Arnold is playing against type, trying to be first a lifeless nerdy scientist and then a weeping sentimental pregnant guy. He doesn't quite pull either of them off. Total misfire. The movie: Batman And Robin (1997) Arnie plays: Dr. Victor Fries, aka Mr. Freeze, a supervillain who can only live in sub-zero temperatures and gives out with wise cracks like "You're not sending ME to the cooler." His performance: Arnie faces his biggest acting challenge yet: he's got no eyebrows, just like in Terminator. And he's covered with crap, just like in Predator. What can you do with that? He pretty much just bellows his lines at the top of his lungs, secure in the knowledge that whatever happens, his will be the best performance in this death-trap of a movie.
The movie: The Sixth Day (2000) Arnie plays: Adam Gibson, a pilot who discovers that he's been illegally cloned — or is he the clone, and the other Adam is the original??? His performance: This is the plastic surgeried Arnie in full effect, and he can't do all the crazy facial expressions he used to. But that's okay, he can smile bigger than ever, and his eyes still bug out in spite of his stretched out skin. He gives his sidekick lessons on manliness, including having a big chest and a flat stomach. He starts out manically jolly — "I had the breakfast of champions today!" — but then gets freaked out after he discovers the evil cloning scam thing. When he gets worked up, he sort of leers. Watching this movie, I'm struck by a couple of thoughts: Arnie has managed to be both an Everyman and a Superman — he's superhuman, but he's also a regular guy who's victimized by the man. Also: Arnold Schwarzenegger is Charlton Heston. He's the manly dude who's always getting thrust into dystopian messes by damn fools.
The movie: Terminator 3: The Rise Of The Machines (2003) Arnie plays: Yet another killer cyborg from the future, once again reprogrammed to protect John Connor (and John's future wife.) But this time, Arnie is the "obsolete" model, and the cyborg attacker is far more advanced and slicker. His performance: I hate to say it, but Arnie seems bored in this movie. The film seems intent on turning his famous character into a joke, stealing clothes from a male stripper, wearing Elton John glasses and grabbing John Connor's head to look for brain trauma. "Talk to da hand." Arnie sleepwalks through the whole exercise, only waking up a bit for the fight scenes. Most painful is when Arnie tries to dispense "basic psychology," like "anger is more useful than despair." He seems a bit sad when he announces that he is an obsolete model. A hint of the old Arnie zing when he tells the more advanced robot T-X, "You are TERMINATED!"