Hollywood's Enduring Action Hero

August 31st, 2017Hollywood's Enduring Action Hero

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a man who doesn't do things by halves, two thirds, or even 99 percent. The bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician is a man who strives, each and every hour of every day, to give everything, to be number one. His feverish thirst for success propelled him from Thal — a small village in Austria with a population of just over 2,000 — to Hollywood. For a man larger than life in physical stature and charisma, it's impossible to imagine anyone else as the Terminator.

A mixture of luck, chemistry, CGI, explosions and deadpan one liners helped to make T-800 (Model 101) a cinematic icon. Like the cybernetic organism itself, the Terminator's appeal is timeless. James Cameron's 1984 originally launched a franchise of five feature films, comics and video games. But without Schwarzenegger, it's doubtful things would've taken off as they did.

Even at the age of 68, he was a highlight in 2015's underwhelming Terminator Genisys, a film generally considered a pale imitation of the originals, focusing on the battle between Skynet's cyborgs and the human race. Indeed, it'd take some doing to live up to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, widely regarded as the best in the series and a film so before its time, that it will be re-released in theaters this month.

The Terminator: A Hollywood Giant

But what are the ingredients that makes Schwarzenegger's Terminator so unforgettable? The actor had already brought his substantial frame to the fore in Conan The Barbarian two years prior, his muscular physique fitting the hyper masculinity of 80s Hollywood action. As impressive as his frame was — he'd won Mr. Universe by 20 and went on to win Mr. Olympia seven times — there's more than mass to Schwarzenegger, and 1984's The Terminator gave him the perfect opportunity to prove that.

That's not to say Cameron didn't emphasize his brawn. After landing on Earth from the year 2029, the Terminator appears naked, unfolding from the foetal position to reveal a chest almost larger than the garbage truck behind him. His first act in the film is a show of otherworldly strength when stealing clothes from a group of unassuming punks. Even without the sci-fi setting, Arnie's 120kgs of onscreen presence make such scenes feel feasible.

Aside from being one of the few people on the planet who could easily convince audiences that this cyborg really was a Terminator sent back from time, Schwarzenegger also brought to the role a unique balance of seriousness and humility — and an abundance of charisma. Make no mistake, he hasn't achieved his level of success by having impeccable acting technique, but his ability to not only be aware of his limits but to actively embrace them — and all of this is transferred serendipitously to the endoskeleton like a metallic hand to a biker's glove.

The rigid hyper-masculinity of the Terminator in Cameron's original is so distinct it comes across as a parody of action heroes of the time. But this was also a drawback in the earlier version. As the villain hunting down Sarah Connor, he's something to be feared, "the other." The fate of humanity lies in preventing this destructive machine from killing Connor to prevent her from birthing the leader of a future human resistance leader. In that respect, humanizing him wasn't an option. The opposite. He's stripped of all humanity.

And that's where Cameron pulled off a masterstroke. Released in 1991, Terminator2 flipped Schwarzenegger's role from villain to antihero, and in doing so unlocked all of the actor's hypnotic potential. Instead of tracking down Sarah Connor, this time he is sent from the future, reprogrammed by John Connor to protect a younger version of himself. Using his larger than life, action-ready persona as a decoy, Schwarzenegger subtly becomes comic foil to Edward Furlong's young John Connor.

The actor's dry wit, combined with surprisingly impressive comic timing, make for some of the most memorable scenes in the film. While his delivery of lines such as "I'll be back," "hasta la vista, baby" and "come with me if you want to live" are sewn into the fabric of popular culture, Schwarzenegger is on finest form when The Terminator's CPU is reset. After Sarah Connor reverses his read-only setting, he's able to learn from human behavior, with mixed results. His dumbfounded, literal execution of his new skills are flawlessly flawed, like a T-800 cracking a smile.

Failing To Live Up To Terminator 2

It's not a surprise T2 is the instalment James Cameron chose to resurrect in 3D. Schwarzenegger returned in 2003 for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the last film he starred in before becoming Governor of California. Although it is shameless fun, it doesn't live up to the quality of its predecessors, despite Arnie's best attempts. Although he couldn't appear in the flesh for Terminator: Salvation (2009), his T-800-shaped-shadow was so significant, CGI was used to add a his face to Roland Kickinger's body. Many regard it the standout scene.

Schwarzenegger in 'Terminator Genisys [Credit: Paramount Pictures]
Schwarzenegger in 'Terminator Genisys [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

Although he returned for Terminator Genisys, Schwarzenegger couldn't save the franchise from spreading itself too thin, attempting to dream up stories in the dystopian universe without offering anything new. Although Genisys made $440 million worldwide and $112 million in China — making it the second best of Arnie's career after T2 — a poor domestic performance of $89 million was enough encourage Paramount Studios to pull the CPU from the franchise.

But for those who thought this was a complete shutdown and not just a standby were forgetting that, as its leading star ages, his previous portrayals remain timeless. Thanks to special effects that hold up extremely well, practical effects that continue to take audience's breath away and arguably Schwarzenegger's role of a lifetime, Terminator 2 was primed to receive the T-1000 treatment — polished, upgraded and modernized by Cameron.

26 years after its release, the sequel returns to the big screen, this time with an added dimension. The original 35mm negative was scanned and upgraded to 4K resolution before being converted to 3D, a process that took a team of 1,400 artists and technicians an entire year to complete. And perhaps it was this process that encouraged Paramount to change their minds, to plug in the CPU and to soldier on with Terminator 6.

Schwarzenegger, now 70-years-old, has confirmed that he'll be back, again. And while Terminator 6 and beyond might not live up to the previous instalments, there's one thing guaranteed: Arnie will give 100 percent to make the Terminator, one of Hollywood's most enduring action heroes, number one again.

(Source: Variety, The Hollywood Reporter)