“Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good actor.”
Type that sentence into Google and the totality of the Internet will return you (as of this writing) just nine results. Nine. And one of the nine is a writer calling someone dumb for thinking Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good actor.
But if Schwarzenegger is so bad, and if so many other aspects of blockbuster filmmaking technology have improved since his career apex in the early 1990s, why are recent Arnold-less remakes, sequels and reboots of old Arnold vehicles so unsatisfying? Two of these—2009’s Terminator Salvation and 2010’s Predators—replaced Schwarzenegger with Oscar winners (Christian Bale and Adrien Brody, respectively). You’d think that would translate into better movies.
Those films and—at least based on early clips—this week’s revamped Conan the Barbarian, starring Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa, are technically polished and visually stunning Hollywood productions. But they go about their business as coldly and robotically as a Skynet Hunter-Killer. Sure, they’ve got the requisite doses of robots, aliens and snake cults, all rendered with special effects filmmakers couldn’t even dream of 20 years ago. But the real appeal of the great Schwarzenegger movies was something these rehashes haven’t been able to duplicate without him: the exhilarating tension between apocalyptic subject matter and the star’s one-of-a-kind cheeseball humor.
Despite the fact that most of his best movies were set on the cusp of the end of days (above and beyond 1999’s End of Days), Schwarzenegger has always buoyed dark material with great absurdist comedy. In The Terminator, he politely tells a police-station receptionist that he’ll be back, then drives a car through the front door. In Predator, he calls an extraterrestrial terror an ugly motherfucker. He literally laughs in the face of death. His patented one-liners keep bleak films from turning into funereal dirges, which is basically what the Terminator and Predator franchises have become in his absence. (His last lead performance, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, was shot shortly before he assumed the California governorship.)
Schwarzenegger hasn’t been completely MIA, though. In a scene that encapsulates everything wrong with the Arnold-less Arnold movies, a CGI version of Schwarzenegger’s T-800 robot attacks Bale’s John Connor at the climax of Terminator Salvation. This computer-generated doppelgänger looks remarkable: It hulks and glares exactly like the genuine article from the original 1984 film. But this digital terminator is missing one key component: Schwarzenegger’s voice. The robot doesn’t make so much as a peep through the entire 15-minute fight scene. What’s a terminator without an “Hasta la vista, baby”? An impressive but dramatically inert special effect.
Showing Arnold’s face and not having it speak is like casting Gene Kelly and not letting him dance; that ridiculous accent is as essential to his appeal as those ridiculous muscles. Interestingly, Australian actor Sam Worthington was forced to mumble his way through an unconvincing American accent as Salvation’s new terminator. It’s funny how few people cared that Schwarzenegger’s robot assassin from the future sounded as if he came from the future of Austria. Maybe it’s because Schwarzenegger, bad puns and all, gave his movies what these copycats lack: personality. Or maybe it’s simply because he was such a good actor.
Conan the Barbarian opens Friday 19. See Reviews.