Kurt Russell, Sci-Fi Badass: We Salute You
News of Hollywood rebooting some beloved property is hardly a rarity these days, but the word this week that the previously dead Escape from New York reboot has staggered back to life is more depressing than most. After all, Hollywood is constantly remaking stories that they got right the first time, but Escape from New York is a movie that succeeds primarily on the basis of its main character, Snake Plissken, and more specifically on the performance of that role by one Kurt Russell.
So, while Hollywood is greedily pawing through its own classics looking for ideas, we here at GFR are going to take a moment to metaphorically high-five Russell for his brilliant roles in several certified science fiction classics. You might be able to cast somebody else in these roles, but you sure as hell can’t replace him.
The Thing — R.J. MacReady (1982)
At least when Hollywood decided to return to the well that birthed one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, they had enough wisdom to realize that trying to improve on the original (which was, itself, a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World) would be an exercise in futility. Instead they served up a prequel…and it went about as well as you might expect. Once again making magic with John Carpenter, The Thing finds Russell playing blue-collar helicopter pilot MacReady as an average guy in an impossible situation. It’s a situation that will swiftly determine whether he’s a survivor or a victim, with no middle ground available, and even though it was the ‘80s, MacReady is no Schwarzenegger/Stallone style action hero. He’s smart and capable, but never superhuman. The constant edge of desperation in his performance sells the bleak situation he and the rest of his companions are stuck in, but he never passes over into full panic or paralysis. When the final scene rolls around, it’s no surprise that MacReady is one of the last men standing. Will he survive past that ambiguous ending? He’s damn sure got a better shot than most.
Stargate — Col. Jonathan “Jack” O’Neil (1994)
While the previous two films let Russell shine as an unkillable badass and an everyman who rises to the occasion, respectively, Stargate lets him stretch his muscles with a multi-layered performance as a broken soldier with a death wish. We see early on how lost he’s become in the aftermath of his son’s accidental death, and once we learn of the “package” that he and his fellow soldiers have brought through the Stargate, there’s no doubt that he will push the button if so ordered. Hell, he might even push it either way. And while kids in science fiction movies often trend toward the annoying, O’Neil’s relationship with Skaara (Alexis Cruz) is genuinely affecting, and Russell’s restrained performance is a big part of why it works so well. How good is Russell as O’Neil? He’s so good that when it came time to replace him for the SG-1 TV spin-off, they had to bring in goddamn MacGyver.
Vanilla Sky — McCabe (2001)
This one might seem like an odd inclusion on this list. After all, Russell’s McCabe isn’t even the protagonist of Vanilla Sky, but rather a small but integral supporting character. Nevertheless, even without a whole movie in which to stretch his legs, Russell still manages to make McCabe one of the best parts of the movie, an accomplishment that becomes even more impressive after the third-act reveal of what’s actually been going on. His role is very different from the other ones on this list, but no less impressive. Playing a psychiatrist counseling Tom Cruise’s David Aames, Russell as McCabe is tasked with portraying a sympathetic and paternal figure, one evocative of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but without that homage beating us over the head. During the film’s brain-bending finale, Russell has to play a man suddenly learning that he is nothing but a figment, a convenient coping mechanism conjured up by Aames’ brain. There are plenty of problems with Vanilla Sky, but Russell is one element that is consistently excellent.
Honorable Mention: Big Trouble in Little China — Jack Burton (1986)
Big Trouble doesn’t remotely qualify as science fiction, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it off this list. It may not be Russell’s very best role, but it is hands-down his most entertaining one. As truck driver Jack Burton, Russell serves up an abnormally lucky doofus who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, but still manages to fumble into victory over and over again. The whole movie is a brilliant inversion of the standard action-movie template: usually Burton would be the hero and Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) would be the sidekick. Instead Chi saves the day pretty much every time, while Burton repeatedly falls backwards into accidental success. As Burton, Russell chews every bit of scenery down into matchsticks, and delivers every quoteworthy line with a mixture of misplaced bravado, frequent confusion, and constant irritation. It’s a thing of beauty.