In 2016, aged just 27, Anton Yelchin was at the top of his game. Deftly navigating between multimillion dollar blockbusters and smaller independent fare, Yelchin was building an enviable career working with directors like JJ Abrams and Jim Jarmusch – one which many actors would envy. That’s why, when on 19 June 2016 a freak accident at his home claimed his life, Hollywood was shaken.
The only son of famous Russian figure skaters Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin, Anton Yelchin’s career began like many others, with an early CV peppered with small roles on Criminal Minds, and ER – before rising to fame in the mid-2000s as a promising new talent. By age 12, Yelchin had already worked with heavyweights including Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, and Albert Finney. Yelchin’s perpetually-youthful face often earmarked him for young, earnest roles like the Ferris Bueller-esque highschooler in Charlie Bartlett alongside Robert Downey Jr.
But it was 2009 that saw Yelchin’s star truly on the rise, with not one but two roles as younger versions of iconic sci-fi characters – Terminator Salvation’s Kyle Reese, and Star Trek’s Chekov. Both were CGI-heavy reboots featuring “The future begins” as their taglines (a testament to Hollywood originality), but only one would capture the hearts of the movie-going public. Yelchin’s performance as cherubic Russian ensign Pavel Chekov in JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot is the role he is most fondly remembered for. Ditching the groovy Davy Jones mop-top sported by original Chekov Walter Koenig, but retaining the iconic “nuclear wessels” Russian accent, Chekov was reimagined as a 17-year old Starfleet prodigy. Replete with an irresistible wide-eyed enthusiasm and a winning “I can do zat!” attitude, Yelchin was the perfect addition to the reboot’s cast. Though the character was criminally underused throughout the trilogy, Chekov remains Yelchin’s most recognisable role. Though taking on an already-beloved character can be a struggle, Yelchin truly made it his own – and it remains his, after JJ Abrams confirmed in 2016 that Chekov would not be recast to appear in future instalments.
Star Trek may have put Yelchin on the map, but it was with smaller independent films that his talent truly shone. It would be easy to be overshadowed in a movie in which the central characters are gothic loved-up vampires played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, but in Only Lovers Left Alive, Yelchin shines as Hiddleston’s unwitting human assistant Ian. Pleasantly oblivious (think Renfield meets Ted Logan), Ian takes every overt “THIS MAN IS A VAMPIRE” warning bell in his unwitting stride. A pasty, nocturnal recluse asking him to procure a wooden bullet for a “secret art project” doesn’t trouble him in the slightest. Neither does witnessing first-hand the impossibly superhuman speed of his employer, which he lauds as cool “martial arts type shit”. The only time Ian seems perturbed is when Adam absentmindedly reminisces about watching 1950s rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran perform live. “You actually saw Eddie Cochrane play?” he asks uncertainly. “Yeah…” Adam fumbles unconvincingly, “on Youtube.” Bless him, that’s good enough for Ian. Unlike so many disposable human bloodbags in vampire movies, when Ian’s death inevitably comes at the hands of Eve’s rash vampire sister Ava (“You drank Ian!”), we’re sad to see him go.
From vamps to punks, we arrive at Green Room, the last film of Yelchin’s to be released before his death – and its arguably one of his best. Yelchin is Pat, guitarist in down-on-their-luck punk band The Ain’t Rights, who reluctantly accept an offer to play for the “boots and braces” crowd at an Oregon Neo-Nazi bar when they run out of gas money. For their opening song, the group play The Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to a room full of white supremacists, immediately endearing them as the kind of scrappy characters you want to root for. Things take a turn for the worse when Pat unwittingly discovers the corpse of a recently-murdered girl in the bar’s green room – and find that their hosts aren’t keen to let them leave. Green Room is no picnic, and boasts some truly spectacular violence, but nevertheless there’s something fantastic about watching a wiry little punk evading waves of hardened neo-Nazis. Boasting a fantastic villain played by fellow Star Trek alum Patrick Stewart (brilliantly against-type as the chillingly evil Darcy) the claustrophobic setting, coupled with violence grisly enough to make your palms sweat, makes this slasher-cum-siege movie a must-see.
A testament to his prolific output, at the time of his death Anton Yelchin had four unreleased feature films in the pipeline – not to mention enough recorded dialogue for the second season of Guillermo Del Toro’s Netflix-based animation Trollhunters. But with the release of Thoroughbreds this month, the career of Anton Yelchin draws to a close. There’s a certain sadness that accompanies the idea that there are no new films to discover or performances to laud – but then again, with a back catalogue this good, we’ll be enjoying Anton for decades to come.