While he was busy playing action heroes for the better part of three decades, Arnold Schwarzenegger was quietly, and possibly unintentionally, becoming one of cinema’s definitive scence fiction actors.
Unlike comedy or horror, it’s rare to see an actor return to sci-fi again and again. It’s not a genre that tends to typecast or “trap” actors once they become associated with it. While Schwarzenegger has appeared in a wide range of movies, his seven films dealing with time travel, killer robots, aliens, cloning, space travels and dystopias make him an unsung hero of the science fiction genre.
Schwarzenegger’s science fiction legacy begins with the role that made him a true star. After all of these years, The Terminator is still one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, using a time-travel premise and an unstoppable cyborg to create a thrilling, dirty and truly unsettling chase movie. Since the bulk of the film takes place in the modern day (well, 1984), the sci-fi elements could have been window dressing, but writer-director James Cameron revels in them, staging flashbacks/flashforwards to a truly hostile and hopeless future while exploring the nature of his villain in grisly, gory detail.
The sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day leans even more heavily on the sci-fi elements, reducing the amount of action in carnage to give the characters time to philosophize about human nature in a way that feels like a solid ’70s science fiction novel. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines steers the series in the direction of bombastic and stupid blockbusters, but the first two films more than earn the series’ place among the great sci-fi stories of all time.
If the first two Terminator films represent Schwarzenegger’s sci-fi at its smartest, then The Running Man is surely the dumbest. Loud, obnoxious and just downright stupid, it’s perfectly entertaining nonsense that also happens to feel about 20 years ahead of the curve. We live in a world where The Hunger Games is making a killing at the box office, but Arnold beat Katniss to the punch in the “story of a dystopia that makes people fight to the death on live TV to placate and terrify the masses” deparment.
The world of The Running Man is far more cartoonish and silly than the grim and somewhat realistic world of Panem, but it’s all by design. If The Hunger Games represents a nightmare future envisioned by American society in 2014, The Running Man takes place in a nightmare future that comes straight out of the excess of the ’80s. It’s satire is broad, its comedy dumb and its action totally ludicrous, but The Running Man feels like the surprisingly satisfying halfway point between Network and Katniss Everdeen.
But The Running Man was not the only crass, lowbrow science fiction movie Schwarzenegger made. No, he managed to top himself with Total Recall. Violent, trashy and proud of every filthy moment, Total Recall feels in line with The Running Man‘s endearing dumbness but it’s significantly more knowing.
Director Paul Verehoeven made a career out of making fine trash and Total Recall is the finest kind of trash, taking a typical Schwarzenegger shoot-’em-up and wrapping it in a science fiction premise that suggests the entire movie is taking place in a brain gone haywire, and that the hero’s desire to live out a violent fantasy is leading to his death in the real world. It’s telling that Schwarzenegger has gone on record saying the events of Total Recall “actually happen” while Verehoeven says they’re all a fantasy — that kind of fundamental disagreement is what drives the entire film.
Here’s the big question though: does Schwarzenegger actually like science fiction or is he just attracted to the kind of action and characters that the genre offers? Predator is an interesting case because it begins like a typical ’80s action movie and slowly transforms into science fiction as the titular alien begins to plague Schwarzenegger’s crew of commandoes. It feels like a micorcosm of his career as a whole: silly, brawny action that just keeps getting invaded by science fiction.
As of right now, the last original sci-fi movie Schwarzenegger starred in was The 6th Day, a terrible film that’s still memorable thanks to a cloning plot that sees Arnold starring alongside himself. However, he’s currently gearing up to return to the Terminator franchise with Terminator: Genesis, which seems to be inventing all kinds of crazy genre concepts to justify why a cyborg got old and how a young Sarah Connor can meet him and why Kyle Reese is still alive.
Schwarzenegger is 66 years old, but his action movies are still being taken over by nutty science fiction. Whether by accident or design, that makes him a true hero of the genre.
More: Which Arnold Schwarzenegger Character Would Win in a Fight? (Infographic)
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