By Darren Franich
June 19, 2016 at 09:14 PM EDT
Industrial Light & Magic

“Russian whiz kid.” That’s what they call Chekov in 2009’s Star Trek — and that’s an accurate description of the actor who played Chekov, too. Anton Yelchin was born in St. Petersburg when it was still Leningrad; his family moved to the United States when emigrating from Russia still counted as “fleeing the Iron Curtain.” The actor wasn’t yet 20 when he was cast as the Enterprise‘s navigator in J.J. Abrams’ reboot, but he was the most experienced movie star in the cast: 12-year-old Yelchin had the title role in 2001’s pregnancy fairy tale Delivering Milo, and grew through adolescence acting with legends like Anthony Hopkins and Robin Williams in Hearts in Atlantis and House of D.

By summer 2009, Yelchin had already learned to shuttle between low-budget independent fare and major Hollywood productions. Two weeks after Star Trek hit theaters, Yelchin was playing another iconic franchise role as Kyle Reese in Terminator: Salvation. A couple years later, he gave a fine performance in the cultishly adored romance Like Crazy. Earlier this year, Yelchin gave a devastatingly realistic everydude-caught-in-a-bad-situation performance in Green Room, a bleak and terse thriller several million tonal miles away from the bright space-pop of the new Star Trek films.

Next month’s Star Trek Beyond isn’t the last film Yelchin worked on before his impossibly sad and untimely death this weekend. But the film will now stand as a tribute to the late actor. What makes Yelchin’s Chekov so interesting is that, in some respects, the role was an outlier for the actor. Though baby-faced well into his mid-20s, Yelchin’s hoarse voice and melancholy bearing were often deployed to play roles that were at once precocious and world-weary.

Pavel Chekov was created by Walter Koenig, a second-generation child of Russian immigrants. Chekov-on-the-Enterprise was a timely and hopeful vision — Russians and Americans working together! — but the story goes that Roddenberry wanted Koenig to ham up the accent. (“Nuclear wessels.”) By the time Yelchin took over as Chekov, the topical resonance was long gone – but you could feel how he thrilled to the part’s energy, and the comedic potential of combing the “Chekov accent.”

There’s a moment in Star Trek Into Darkness which shows off Yelchin’s talent as a comedic performer. Captain Kirk has just fired his Chief of Engineering – and he promotes Chekov, the ship’s official know-everything prodigy. Koenig’s Chekov was often used as an all-purpose support staff – he’s variously a second-in-command executive officer, a science officer, and a medical officer in the original films – and the new films had a lot of fun with the notion that Yelchin’s Chekov could do pretty much anything, if he had the chance.

So Kirk makes his navigator into an engineer, which requires a change of outfit. “Put on a red shirt,” the Captain says – a line built for a belly laugh from the Trek fandom, who know that “redshirt” is a synonym for “nothing good coming your way.” The camera lingers on Yelchin, staring off into the distance – a look that is knowing without being remotely sardonic, a committed clownish moment worthy of a silent comedian – before he mutters, in that delirious accent, “Aye, kep–tin.”

It’s become a depressingly regular experience in the summer blockbuster months: To see a big-budget fantasy spectacle suddenly rendered as a monument to a performer gone too soon. Yelchin’s career was about so much more than Star Trek, but Beyond will now be a final moment for the mainstream moviegoing public to see one of the true young talents of his generation. Yelchin gave richer performances, but there’s a rare magic to his Chekov, to the way Yelchin seems to be playing human flop sweat. In his big showcase scene in the 2009 Trek, Chekov races from the bridge to the transporter room, all-but-leaving a Yelchin-shaped hole in the walls of the ship. “I can do that! I can do that!” he screams. “Move, move, move!”

That was Yelchin: The kinetic energy, the forward motion, the feeling that he really could do everything, if he only got the chance.