Close your eyes and picture Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What do you see?
For most people, I suspect the answer is his iconic Terminator character: sunglasses, spiked hair, biker leathers, and a really large gun. The Terminator was the role that made Schwarzenegger the longest household name in the world, and catapulted him from bodybuilding guru and action movie curio to full-fledged star. It and the films that followed glorified Schwarzenegger as a sometimes figurative, sometimes literal killing machine: few actors can lay claim to more onscreen murders than Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. He was basically death personified, and never more so than in “The Terminator” itself, where his robot assassin is sent back in time by sentient computers from the future to snuff out the life of humanity’s last great leader by eliminating his mother before she ever gives birth to him.
That is a lengthy and seemingly tangential way of introducing a piece about “Junior,” a very different movie from a very different Arnold Schwarzenegger. Released in 1994 to mediocre ticket sales and even poorer critical notices, “Junior” quickly became a punchline and footnote on Schwarzenegger’s career. It reunited the team that made Schwarzenegger’s surprise 1988 hit “Twins” — co-star Danny DeVito and producer/director Ivan Reitman — for what was then considered a de facto cash-in sequel with a hokey premise. As a stand-alone movie, “Junior” is, admittedly, imperfect. The story is absurd and the romantic subplots are pure cliché. But as a piece in a larger body of work, as the culmination of an actor’s radical transformation from one type of character to another, as his rejection of the very image that made him a star, it’s one of the most interesting and important films in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.
Ahnuld plays Dr. Alexander Hesse, a fertility expert on the verge of a medical breakthrough. He and his parter, Dr. Larry Arbogast (DeVito) have created a new drug called Expectane, which boosts women’s ability to carry risky pregnancies to term. Hesse and Arbogast believe Expectane could change the world, but after the FDA refuses to allow them to test the drug on human subjects, they are fired from their cushy university gigs and sent packing by their skeptical boss, Dr. Noah Banes (Frank Langella). Here, Reitman is cribbing the entire set-up of his big hit, “Ghostbusters” — the cutting-edge scientists cast out of academia who decide to become entrepreneurs.
Hesse and Arbogast continue their work in secret, but they still need a guinea pig, so Hesse reluctantly agrees to implant a human embryo in his abdomen and dope himself with their wonder drug. Miraculously, the experiment succeeds: Hesse becomes pregnant. He’s only supposed to stay “with child” long enough to prove Expectane’s efficacy, but after a few months Hesse decides he doesn’t want to give up his baby. So behind Arbogast’s back he takes more Expectane, and sets out to carry his little “Junior” to term. By the end of the film that means Schwarzenegger is dressed in drag, talking in a fake female accent, and pretending to be a woman at a pregnancy retreat. It’s even crazier than it sounds.
Essentially, “Junior” is “The Anti-Terminator,” and Hesse is the opposite of the T-800. Where the Terminator existed only to destroy life (and specifically pregnancy), Hesse lives only to create and defend it — first as a fertility doctor and then as the world’s first pregnant man. In a sense, the film is the culmination of the middle phase of Schwarzenegger’s career, a “Life Cycle” that followed his early, violent “Death Cycle.” Whether motivated by his 1986 marriage to Maria Shriver and the birth of his own children, or simply a canny desire to broaden his appeal, these “Life Cycle” movies transitioned Schwarzenegger from remorseless murderer to humane protector — from a “Predator” to a “Kindergarten Cop,” as it were.
Or, more explicitly, from one kind of Terminator to another. In 1991’s “T2: Judgment Day,” another robo-killer from the future is sent back to the present, but this time his mission is to defend humanity’s future savior (now a teenager) from another, deadlier, robo-killer from the future. This Terminator’s friendship with the teen reprograms him. “I know now why you cry,” the Terminator tells John Connor after he’s saved him one final time, “but it’s something I could never do.” In “Junior,” the Terminator gets to cry (and give birth, and pig out on junk food, and dress in women’s clothes, and take Lamaze classes).
In his review of “Junior,” Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film a “patriarchal comedy” and a “high-concept obscenity.” I see it a little bit differently — and a little bit more subversively. Rosenbaum says the movie is about men “usurping the reproductive roles of women,” and I suppose there is a fair amount of comedy devoted to poking fun at pregnancy stereotypes the mood swings, the binge eating, the constant trips to the bathroom. But that view ignores what “Junior” ultimately says. Hesse and Arbogast don’t “steal” their co-stars’ womanhood; their experiment proves womanhood’s inherent superiority. It’s not that Hesse is a better mother than a woman; it’s that being a mother makes him a better person.
Before his pregnancy, Hesse is deliberately established as a Terminator-style character: emotionless, boring, and, as he puts it, “not well-liked.” But rather than valorizing this behavior as Schwarzenegger’s early movies did, “Junior” rejects his “masculine” lifestyle. Hesse’s career is a failure and his love life is nonexistent. It’s only through carrying “Junior” (and ingesting the accompanying regimen of female hormones), that he achieves his full potential, both professionally and personally.
For Schwarzenegger, a star who built his entire career on his outsized masculinity and characters defined by their utter lack of human feelings, this is a satisfyingly surreal transformation. A few years earlier, he convincingly killed an entire police station by himself, and made us root for him while he did it. In “Junior,” he’s laid low by morning sickness, and happier for it. No wonder the film was a flop — Schwarzenegger was essentially rebuking all the movies that had made him a star.
“Junior” sounds like a gimmick comedy, but it’s an endlessly strange gimmick comedy, far quirkier than your typical studio fare, and a far riskier project for Schwarzenegger than it’s ever been given credit for. It’s also a surprisingly sweet tribute to parenthood (and, though it strains to remain apolitical, a potent pro-life argument). As Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to movie theaters this weekend with a more traditional action vehicle called “The Last Stand,” it’s worth celebrating the truly bizarre moment when the actor willfully obliterated his most iconic role, and the cinema’s leading expert in taking life decided to make a sincere celebration of the beauty of giving it.