Anton Yelchin Was One of Our Finest Actors

By  · Published on June 20th, 2016

Celebrating what was and what could have been.

I loved Anton Yelchin from the start. That may sound like I’m back in the ’90s boasting about being a fan of some band before they got big. But that’s actually how I often felt about the actor. He never seemed to be appreciated enough when he was alive, and now that he has died it appears as though everyone was secretly his biggest supporter. That’s fine. He didn’t exactly have a shortage of roles due to a shortage of coverage and esteem (clearly filmmakers did recognize his talent), and it’s not necessarily too late to either show or gain appreciation for Yelchin. But I’d like to share some love for him with particular focus on his less famous and less honored work.

When I say I loved him from the start, I don’t mean the home movies of him as a baby and toddler at the beginning of Alpha Dog, which is the first thing many people noticed him in. My first appreciation came with the 2001 Stephen King adaptation Hearts in Atlantis. I recall very little about the movie as a whole, but I came away intrigued and optimistic about the young lead. He wasn’t like most child actors of the time, meaning I didn’t hate him for being energetically precocious. Yet he had talent and a definite intelligence that made him seem beyond his years. He looked like a kid happy to be acting and eager to do a great job at it. He achieved that goal.

And he continued to appear that way for me throughout the next 15 years of his short but prolific career. The next thing I saw him in was the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken, which I could have sworn he had a bigger role in than his actual two-episode involvement. He was perfectly cast for the show due to his wide-eyed appearance that ‐ like his sort of co-star Dakota Fanning (who plays his granddaughter) as well as little Cary Guffey in the much earlier Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind ‐ made him seem believably a carrier of alien genes. But he also had a charisma that obviously made his presence and performance stick out in my mind.

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In 2009, after finding acclaim with roles in festival favorites like Alpha Dog and Charlie Bartlett, Yelchin entered the big time with supporting parts in two summer blockbusters, Star Trek and Terminator Salvation. In both, he took on portrayals of characters we’d seen before, and he delivered an uncanny mix of imitation and individuality. With the former he got to showcase his Russian roots as the new Chekov and with the latter he acts and sounds precisely like a young Kyle Reese ‐ as initially played by Michael Biehn ‐ should (all the more apparent after seeing Jai Courtney botch the character in Terminator Genisys). For me, he makes that movie defendable.

You could tell it didn’t matter to him what kind of movies these were, he was going to give it his all, with respect and care in his performance no matter what. Following the announcement of his death, I saw many acknowledging his big studio movies as a bit of an aside, as something he was seen more in and that maybe he had to do in order to give us more great indie efforts such as Like Crazy, Only Lovers Left Alive, and this year’s Green Room. But the franchise stuff wasn’t just about paycheck parts. He definitely enjoyed doing it all, and that enthusiasm elevated everything he worked on. Even The Smurfs, for which he voiced the character Clumsy Smurf. He didn’t get to do as much in these movies but he did everything he could.

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Three of my favorite Yelchin performances are in what I consider his trilogy of underrated light horror comedies. The first was the 2011 Fright Night remake, followed in 2013 by the Dean R. Koontz adaptation Odd Thomas, and rounding out the set was Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex in 2014. These are all movies where he showed promise of being a certain kind of movie star, not doing serious acting but playing a similar type of bewildered yet competent young man faced with strange and paranormal situations. Not that he’s not still giving these parts his all, but they’re the most plain as far Yelchin doing Yelchin, charmingly carrying features that are relatively dumb but entertaining enough. And being a lovable, hug-able, initially rather meek love interest who becomes a macho heroic type by the movies’ ends.

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Fright Night was dismissed as a pointless remake and maybe not gory enough for fans of the original but he’s a delight in a movie that actually does a decent job playing with the effects of the housing boom, particularly in Las Vegas, without going overboard with such subtext. As for Odd Thomas, I’ll recommend it to anyone who digs Peter Jackson’s Frighteners, as it has a similar tone. I only caught it recently and was disappointed it wasn’t more successful since I’d have watched Yelchin in more adaptations of Koontz’s series featuring the Thomas character. As for Burying the Ex, it’s a lot better than it looks, mainly because of Yelchin and his nerdy chemistry with Alexandra Daddario.

Unlike many of my colleagues who did appreciate him, I never met or interviewed Yelchin ( I did however share a small corner of a bar at Sundance with him as we both waited to do separate interviews and I silently admired his skinny jeans and the skinny legs inside them as he paced in front of me). I can’t vouch for how nice he was or anything else regarding his personality. I only really knew what was on screen, and I can kind of tell through the imprint of his soul in these images, as well as the discernible effort he put into every job, that he was a good guy whose great skill was only one part of his gift as as an actor. He seemed to have a virtue in the way he approached any part and performance.

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I longed for when he would be more favored as not just an actor but a star whom people would see and enjoy in something directed by Stephen Sommers or Brett Ratner as much something directed by more respected filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Drake Doremus. And I really wish I could see him in more movies in a long, continued career, one where he likely would have aged into an even greater talent and also would have received more regard. But I also wish he could go back and play more parts as a child actor ‐ just go back and play all the kid parts in everything. I have to accept that he can’t do either, and I’m thankful for what he did do and did give us.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.