I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

Driving through the New Mexico desert during summer's peak, my mouth as parched as the baked terrain, I wonder to myself, what would Dr. Frankenstein do if he lived today?

Would he dig through morgues to find the proper arms, legs and noses he needed to create his infamous monster? Or would he give up on biological life and simply build a robot?

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

The T-600 is the closest thing modern fiction has to Frankenstein's famous beast. He stands 7 feet tall and shares the monster's trademark stiff, slow movements. If pushed to the ground, he might not be able to get up, trapped like an overweight baby on his back. But then again, it would take a lot to knock him down. A truck, at least. Plus, you'd need to get past the minigun that's permanently welded to his arm first.

And then there's his skin. Like Frankenstein, the T-600 is in a constant state of rot. Sent out to patrol without maintenance, the T-600 is Skynet's more sinister rendition of the taxicab, a tool driven day and night until its rubber skin melts to slime and crackles away in patches to dry, desert heat.

In Terminator Salvation, SkyNet has not created the cold, technologically precise world of The Matrix. It's simply not that smart yet. And the thing about machines is that they're not usually as self-conscious about their looks as Hollywood designers would argue.

During my visit to the movie's set during filming last summer, I got a firsthand look at all of this techno-ugly, the world in which, if the machines do take over, we'd see in our lifetime.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

Everything in the future is pieced together from scraps and bits. I realize that as my bus pulls up to the nondescript studio in the middle of the New Mexico desert. I glance over at a cacophony of metal in the sand and wonder, is it a junkyard or a battlefield that I'm looking at?

Buses and cars are piled not with armor plating but a few extra layers of rust and grime. Most look like they couldn't run. Some look like they may have never run.

I walk up to a helicopter that's in relatively good condition, yet my untrained eyes can tell it's not one chopper but two or three stitched together with a welding torch and a lot of swearing. It barely looks like it can fly (and ironically, I find out later that it can't—it's suspended from a wire during shooting).

Everything is perforated with bullet holes.

Then I see the source of the carnage, shining with enough sheen to justify that whole overused diamond in the rough metaphor.

With two sets of mini-tank treads, a vague hint of a torso and head and twin miniguns, it looks sort of like Johnny 5...if Johnny 5 ripped out his eyes and flooded his chassis with robotic performance enhancers until his metal skin buckled under the pressure.

Those guns are more than a prop, I hear. And during filming, they've decided to fire live ammunition in lieu of CGI. Each shell costs $3 and the guns fire somewhere around 100 rounds per second. Sure, the effect would be cheaper to create on computers, but there's no way it would be so much fun.

I've pretty much just walked up to the T4 set—one of many, in fact—and I realize that the amount of real, massively-scaled props I've seen is astounding. A week earlier when I booked the ticket to New Mexico to visit the set, I wondered just how much stuff I'd actually see versus how much of the set tour would consist of dry wall and green paint.

There's really not much green paint going on at all.

As I work my way inside and weave through a small army of builders constructing plywood masterpieces that rise stories into the air, I smell wood, not paint. I'm told that green screen is saved for the edges or corners of a set—things like the blown-out roof of a real 3-story air intake silo.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

Meanwhile, as we wet our shoes in a darkened sewer complex (filled with about an inch of real water and mud), I'm amazed at how the plywood walls have been transformed from generic yellow wood into metal and rust and brick—set decorators have airbrushed almost every square inch to create the illusion of infinite tetanus.

And the tech. Oh man.

Lining the walls of this resistance bunker, the stomping grounds of John Connor, there must have been at least 50 PCs in various states of disrepair. They were stacked like concrete blocks, a rummage sale obsession gone way, way wrong. And there was other stuff, too. Super geeky stuff. Spectrum analyzers, CB radios and coils of aging solder.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

As the bunker continues, the floor dries out as it leads to a small operating room. Here, you could see all types of medical equipment easily dating back to the 60s. Combine every season of MASH with every season of ER, cover it in dirt and add a solitary intimidation light hanging from the ceiling. That's what it looked like.

The Resistance was fighting Frankenstein with Frankenstein—piecing together every type of tech possible to battle SkyNet's evolving monster.

I knew the sets were fake, but when you're surrounded by so much existing technology, so much detail, being pieced together as part of a dark thesis, it unsettles your stomach to say the least.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

Hopping back on the bus, I sat for about an hour riding deeper into the desert as the air conditioning submitted to New Mexico's summer heat.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

I pass by a gas station. Is this just a gas station in the middle of nowhere? Nope, it's a movie set - the famous Sara Connor station she visits at the end of T1. (It wasn't exploding at the time.)

I pass by a pile of old corroding cars. Is this another futuristic battlefield? Nope, it's just a junk car lot.

The bus jostles me through a seemingly endless, operational train yard before reaching its abandoned station that must be a century old, an eerie conglomeration of beauty and horror. The sun diffuses through skylights in the expansive space and time seems to slow as dandelion pollen floats through the air. Yet, when shot at night, the cattle cars around back—retrofitted by "machines"—had brought people here to be skinned for hair and epidermis (to develop the Arnold Schwarzenegger terminators, the "skin jobs").

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

Standing inside one of these steaming cars, sharp edges exposed at every corner, I couldn't imagine what the extras had gone through during shooting…let alone those persecuted in the real world events that this scene was meant to so closely (maybe even heavy-handedly) parallel.

And in this sense, the movie was reaching another level of Frankensteinian philosophy—patching the most horrifying moments of our past with the potentially hopeless bleakness of the future. Who knew, if the actors, director, cinematographer, special effects coordinator and editor could pull it off, maybe the movie—a sequel of a sequel of a sequel—might actually be good…poignant, even.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

As the sun finally set and I arrived at my final destination, a night shoot right outside of SkyNet itself (depicted as an aging factory expelling absurd but periodic balls of flame) my skepticism had been laid to rest.

Terminator 4 might or might not be a good movie, but I'd gotten the vibe from McG, the director, and a number of the actors that, yes, they knew, Terminator 3 was horrible. And previewing about 6 minutes of footage of the film in McG's trailer depicted the Mad Max world in a cohesive, and new voice.

(Since then, the trailers have painted the picture of a bigger action movie with more CGI and more polish. It'll be interesting to see how the stylistic themes collide in the final product.)

Everyone was clearly working hard to make this movie not suck. A month earlier, one member of the construction crew had been stung by a scorpion. This tale of a real life emergency made McG's informal poll amongst journalists as to whether or not a James Cameron cameo would be too cheesy for the content seem a little less impressive, but earnest all the same.

That night, as I watched the first and last actual filming of my visit, the crew of 150 or so people had one goal—put a giant bulldozer through a wall. The scene could only be done once (lest they rebuild the brick wall) so it was rehearsed endlessly. A jib arm would track an actor's movements as he infiltrated SkyNet, then, BOOM. Wall comes down.

I Met a Terminator and Lived to Tell the Story

Well, that's not including the military-grade explosions from SkyNet's rhythmic death flames (that ushered a periodic deathly wall of heat onto onlookers), but you get the point.

And after several hours of rehearsal and constant mini meetings between directing, cinematography and visual effects departments (tediously boring in spite of the endless pyrotechnics), I can spoil that the brick wall does come down and our protagonist lives to tell the tale.

But whether or not the Frankensteinian T-600 lurking in the background noticed, I do not know.

Machines Behaving Deadly: A week exploring the sometimes difficult relationship between man and technology.