I've been to the Terminator: Genisys set. I witnessed four hot, moderately exciting seconds of walking and talking, touched a time machine, and smelled the T-800 in the flesh. And this involved a lot of emotions balanced with a lot of speculation. Here's our complete set report. Some spoilers ahead.
As we were bussed into the massive ex-NASA facility, turned studio a journalist in front of me spun around, starred me down and said, "Meredith, we're going to see the Terminator."
This was fact. I'm going to see the Terminator, I thought. The actual Terminator. Not some horrific mannequin dressed in the remnants of the Terminator's wardrobe, smeared with the grease of a 1,000 Planet Hollywood cheeseburgers. The real T-800. "I might throw up," I replied.
This is where things get complicated. I'm a journalist, and I'm a fan. I can still get emotionally overwhelmed (wildly in either direction) by waves of nostalgia. My husband was kind enough to remind me of this as I barely held back tears watching the teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII. "Remember…Terminator Salvation," he quipped. Harsh. But in truth, I could not foresee the behemoth of bad that was Terminator Salvation, until it played out in front of me. There were warnings: a child character sidekick named Star, grey-colored dystopian futures, Helena Bonham Skynet. But I was psyched up until the day it debuted. Why? Because it's the fucking Terminator.
I'm not going to trot out some obligatory backstory about how important the Terminator is to me, because it's the Terminator. That's like explaining why pizza is great: it's pizza. You don't need some tale about how I grew up eating pizza with my Dad. It's known. It's an institution. The Terminator and T2 are all things spectacular and bombastic in science fiction (while maintaining a simple focus). The end.
And that's how I walked onto the New Orleans set, inundated with nervous nostalgia, burned by Terminator Salvation, and completely baffled to be entering a space where human people were paying big bucks to reboot the Terminator franchise as a whole. Plus, this wasn't going to be one film, but three. On set, co-producer David Ellison explained the crew's thoughts on where their new Terminator trilogy fits inside James Cameron's world:
David Ellison: "The movie is based on the source material that James Cameron created. But it's not a sequel and it's not a prequel. It's a completely standalone trilogy. [Writers] Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier actually spent a significant amount of time breaking out all three movies. We know exactly what the last shot of what our Terminator 3 is going to be. For us this is Terminator 1, this is not Terminator 5, this is not a prequel to the first Terminator. This is a complete standalone film based on the Cameron source material."
Clearly, the crew behind this new franchise has some sort of grand plan, if they know exactly how the last scene of their last movie is going to be shot. But absolutely no one was ready to explain how they planned to accomplish this huge endeavor.
This was, hands down, the most tight-lipped set I had ever set foot on. It was so secret I wasn't even allowed to report the name of the movie. So secret that we weren't even told the big Terminator: Genisys plot twist (the fact that Sarah Connor was actually raised by the T-800, whom she now lovingly calls "Pops"). I only learned about it months later in a head-scratching Entertainment Weekly feature. I don't need everything spoiled for me on set — that's not the issue. But trust me, had I known the T-800 actually raised Sarah Connor, I would have had questions.
However, the father dynamic was heavily alluded to during the set visit. Even director Alan Taylor (Thor 2) hinted at it in our brief on set encounter later that day. He explained that, if the first movie was a love story and the second a father/son story, his third would be centered around this unconventional family:
Alan Taylor: "I think it's a dysfunctional family, but the father theme plays really strongly in ours. We have sort of mirroring father figures in this that have to be dealt with, and they are very difficult relationships. Again, there is a love story at the core of it. Outside of that, there is the issue of family. I guess we're trying to draw on things that were present in both the first two films."
This also might explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger's on-set chair was emblazoned with the generic character name, "Guardian," and why everyone was super evasive when we asked what that meant. Before being let inside the actual studio, where I would finally be able to smell the real smell of Skynet (I was envisioning rows upon rows of T-600 smelting and CPU chips lined up for Terminator insertion), we were prepped with a small slice of background knowledge.
What we did learn, thanks to an errant quote from Terminator: Genisys cast member JK Simmons (note that this would be the last time he was mentioned on set), was that Genisys was basically some sort of Back to the Future 2 version of Terminator where Kyle Reese is sent back in time to 1984 to save Sarah Connor, but she's different. The trailer would later reveal that this different Sarah was really, really different. Like, already knowing how to murder people, gun-toting, "Come with me if you want to live" line-stealing different. This was where everything would deviate from our past Terminator franchise and build out into an entirely different, three-movie world. Usually on set visits the reports would get a little more insight. A look at the concept art, a bit of footage but that was not on the docket for today. This was the world I was walking into.
Inside the expansive studio housed a massive stadium-looking contraption. The walls were hollowed out in a human-sized honeycomb pattern and painted grey. This was Cyberdyne, 2017. A computer screen flashed the words "Genisys." We were standing on the outskirts of a massive time machine. Scratch that, it was a Time Displacement Device. Around it circled a bit of much more familiar man-made scaffolding, and staircase. Suspended above the entire thing was a copper tower, and a pantload of greenscreen. Hushed crew members scampered around large cables while we all took seats in chairs labeled with the movie's fake name, "Vista."
We were about to watch a scene from Terminator: Genisys being filmed.
The scene as a whole was, I shit you not, was just some actors walking up some stairs. But this is the magic of movies, people. The motive was simple three character were carrying a bunch of bombs into Cyberdyne to blow something to hell. What, your guess is as good as mine but Terminator movies usually only have one singular plot (blowing up Skynet/Cyberdyne). We were corralled off to the side and positioned right under (and about 20 feet away from) a shiny metal staircase that led up and over the lip of the grey honeycomb contraption.
We could hear faint clomping from a distance. Up popped the new Kyle Reese, Jai Courtney. "We'll never make it out in time," he warned the figure behind him. He was steely, chiseled, attractive — yet resoundingly not Michael Biehn. This isn't going to work, I thought...
I saw her ponytail first. That sounds absurd, I'm aware, but it was the first thing I noticed on the new Sarah Connor. A ponytail, a black tank top, and a gun. Sold. Emilia "Where Are My Dragons?" Clarke is certainly not Linda Hamilton, but for that second, she had me. I can't say how she well she pulls it off in the rest of the film (all I've seen is a few takes that may get thrown in the trash for all I know), but for four solid seconds, Clarke put on the face of a woman who sacrificed her whole life to prevent Judgement Day. So that's something.
Connor spoke, "Then we blow it anyway." Damn straight you blow it anyway, Sarah Connor.
Connor continued, "At the rate the timers are going, we'll never make it out in time…" And then HOLY HELL, IT WAS HIM.
There he was. Big. Beautiful. Face ripped all to shit. It was the T-800. Arnold Schwarzenegger marched behind the pair. His hair was wild and white, something new! Every character has a gun but the Terminator, because he's the fucking Terminator. Without emotion (obviously he's a robot dummies), he soldiered up the stairs. The T-800's face was gashed open, revealing the unmistakable silver metal endoskeleton, a little bit of green screen makeup, and the classic glowing red eye. Oh my Goooood.
Then he spoke. Well, it wasn't so much speaking as it was delivering that dead-pan, "Hasta la vista" dialogue. Honestly, I had forgotten the actual robot character talked like that until he spoke. It was hilarious, "When I worked here, there was a safe room. We can survive the blast… but it can only be used once." WAIT, SHUT UP WOLFIE, AND HOLD THE PHONE. The Terminator WORKED at Cyberdyne?
The trio continued across the giant facility. "What about that? Is that dangerous?" Sarah asked.
The Terminator replied, "Polyalloy. It requires programming to take permanent form. Without a CPU, it's harmless." POLY-FUCKING-ALLOY, PEOPLE. The real T-800 is 20 feet in front of me with a glowing eye talking about polyalloy.
And that was it. No further mention of the T-1000 or liquid polyalloy (however, there was a T-1000-type creature in the trailer).
Was this the most exciting four seconds of people walking up a set of totally unremarkable steps I'd ever seen? Maybe? Probably because it involved a Terminator? But at face value, it still was a scene I observed with little to no context. I had a (really) nice fan moment. It was nice. The Terminator looked great, Sarah Connor has some presence (for the few seconds she spoke), and Jai Courtney is Jai Courtney. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I spent the rest of my time on set waiting around to interview the T-800 and nosing around leftover sets — specifically an old, cobbled together-looking time machine that was built in the movie's version of 1984. Surprise, there's more than one time machine in Terminator: Genisys. There's the first time machine that Kyle Reese journeys to 1984 in, an additional time machine in the year of 1984, and another in 2017.
The time machine pictured above is from the film's past, the newly altered 1984. It was built out of spare parts and hidden in an obscure industrial area. The set we saw was recently hollowed out, the skeletal remains of the Macgyvered Time Displacement Device was all that was left standing. It was mostly scraps of wire and copper.
According to the on-set production designer, the secret to the Terminator time machine is electromagnets and refrigeration. The idea was that the perfect temperature and the perfect electro magnets would lead to time travel. The 1984 time machine actually had refrigeration units stacked all along the walls, to keep it cool. Now that is forever a part of Terminator canon *shrugs*.
My only question for the time machine expert: "How does one get into this [time machine] elegantly naked?" The answer: with a ladder. The more you know.
Even though Terminator: Genisys essentially retcons the entire Terminator world, there are still a whole lot of really clever homages and moments that the filmmakers have tediously recreated. This was exceedingly apparent during my trip to the costume department to speak with Susan Matheson.
We've already revealed that Matheson was so deeply dedicated to recreating elements of The Terminator in Terminator: Genisys that she forced Nike to remake Kyle Reese's Nike Vandals, just so the new Kyle Reese could wear something authentic. (Nike even offered her a unique new line spin on the old shoes, but she wouldn't budge. Originals or bust.)
So if you were wondering, yes Kyle Reese will put on his classic duster and striped tee look. It's all there. And yes, the Terminator will be dressed in the appropriate amount of leather.
Susan Matheson: "How can you do a Terminator without leather? There's leather. Just remember, we travel in time to many different times. So the one thing I will say that was very exciting for me is that also means that I got to do many different version of The Terminator. And I got to do things that really tip their hat to the original, and I also got to do some new things, which will be surprising, hopefully exciting, and really tie in with the story."
In the brief minutes we got with Terminator: Genisys director Alan Taylor (Thor 2) between shots on the stairs, the one thing that stuck out that was that he may be a bit jealous of the original Terminator's simplicity. But he's hoping to make his new world even richer with its wild time warp deviations:
Alan Taylor: "The key element in the first two films I envy is the incredible simplicity. It was somebody you really cared about in peril every minute in both those movies. It was a very small, contained source of suspense. We don't have the same simplicity because we're trying to do a lot. We're trying to bridge the things that have existed in the mythology before and be true to it while we're launching something new. So there's a kind of complexity that comes with that that I think is part of the defining quality of this movie that I think makes it richer."
It was both intriguing and worrisome to hear this. At its heart, a great Terminator movie is a chase scene. You put a Terminator in the movie, and you make it chase people and stop at nothing. It's the relentless pursuit of a machine against the organic spirit of man.
The chase was the set-up for the first two Terminator films, which this new franchise is supposed to be inspired by. And yet, where is the chase in this movie? This new world seems more wrapped up in Back to the Future-esque time loops than in anything else.
On the one hand, this could be the revitalization this franchise needs, the kick in the pants the Terminator world has been waiting for since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. On the other hand, it could be an exceedingly overcomplicated mess.
That being said, it's comforting to see a studio take this large of a risk. Terminator Salvation's biggest problem was the gun-shy manner in which it ripped the biggest twist right out of the film. Remember, John Connor was originally supposed to die, get skinned, and have his flesh hung over the much more powerful half-Terminator body of Marcus — thus making Marcus, a Terminator, the Savior of Humanity. Hah. That ending leaked, fans freaked, and (of course) it didn't happen, which is a damn shame. That ending could have saved the meandering movie.
If you're not going to do the traditional Terminator chase movie, then you've got to try something bold. And Terminator: Genisys' plan to fuck it and reboot the whole thing is really quite bold. The movie's going to have to sell me on Daddy Terminator, but the rest of the field is wide open.
But perhaps the thing we heard about on set — something we heard the cast and crew mention again and again — is the impending Singularity, and exactly how that idea influenced the cast. The new John Connor (Jason Clarke from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) name-checked the Singularity twice, as did producer David Ellison. This pleases us.
David Ellison: "[Terminator: Genisys] a commentary of where we are today but also where we're going. One of the ideas that's very much explored in this movie is the Singularity. Which is really, very much in the near future. The fact that we're actually doing ocular implants. Think about how much you actually rely upon technology for your daily life. The bonding of man and machine is just as far around the corner as a lot of the technology that exists today when Cameron made the original 84 film. It's very much a commentary on society and the technology we rely on today as well as where we're going in the future."
The shift from Judgment Day fear to techno horror is an interesting move. And it's something that's already ingrained in the franchise. The Terminator has human-like skin and human-like qualities, but it's all robot underneath. But then you take into consideration the CPU and how he's growing as a sentient being. If this T-800 has been living on Earth for years before we meet him in this movie, he should have grown exponentially and perhaps developed very human-like tendencies. Fingers crossed that the melding of man and machine is really meditated on here. Of course they'll allude to things like Facebook and Twitter — how technology is already inside of us all — but I'd really love to see the filmmakers explore this at an even more visceral level. It's a potentially rich subject that the Terminator franchise could really dig into.
Finally, we got face time with Arnold himself, still dressed in his white wig and T-800 damaged prosthetics (but no red eye, sadly). We got a second to grill the human robot on why he came back to the Terminator. And he handled it like the experienced politician he is — throwing just enough shade on the movie he didn't like, and promising money, action, and mayhem for his fans. Jesus, this guy can work a room:
What was it about this take on the franchise that made you decide "hey I need to come back and do this?"
Schwarzenegger: Well I always said that I would do another Terminator if the story is great. And I really enjoyed the story when I read it. I think that the people that were involved made me feel like this is going to be a good movie and they're going to go all out. Instead of let's just kind of exploit this franchise and live off some of the great ones that were done in the past. They really took it seriously, they really figured out a way to continue on the story and kind of ignoring the last one, basically.
A core part of every Terminator movie is you in an amazing action scene? Are you going to have a very long action scene in this? And will it top T2's action scene?
Schwarzenegger: I know that we have to outdo T2. The director knows that. The producers know it. The studio knows it. I think that everyone is in sync with that. Visual Effects wise you have to outdo the second one because it was so far ahead of its time. The idea is to come out with a movie with a big bang entertain audiences all over the world.
People really loved your Terminator movies. Some fans felt a little burnt by the last one. How do we win them back with this one?
Schwarzenegger: I think actions speak louder than words. You can do all the hyping you want, it doesn't mean anything. When the movie's trailer comes out, right away it will set the record straight. I remember when we came out with the trailer for True Lies. People knew right away what it is and how big it is. The key thing is that they cut a great trailer, they promote it the right way. The first screenings and the buzz will then take care of the rest. I don't think that it is difficult to win the people over. The people are excited about another Terminator, they're ready to see another one, it just has to deliver.
Do you feel protective over this franchise? And when they first sent you the script were there certain things you wanted to change?
Schwarzenegger: We had very open discussion. After we got the first script I had a lot of questions, some of the things didn't make sense. They were tweaked, it didn't make sense to other people either. It was fine tuned over a period of a few months. There were very talented people that were involved. And the great thing was everyone was in sync. I was going off in one direction and David and Dana were thinking differently and Alan was thinking differently, there was none of that. I think this is very unique project because I think everyone is very protective. And protective not just because of the art's sake. But I think also because of the business' sake. The studio sees this if we do well here we can go with another few, we all can entertain people, we can make money. We have done a great job with bringing back the franchise. Everyone is in sync with that. That's why I think everyone is really working around the clock here.
And that ended my time on the Terminator: Genisys set visit. I left with the same pit in my stomach I showed up with. It's a pretty brazen idea, but maybe it will work. Can Terminator: Genisys save the faltering franchise? Based on what I saw, I couldn't even tell you. The idea is certainly ballsy, and for that they get snaps. And snaps for actually casting the fucking Terminator as opposed to a CG monstrosity. I'll watch it, because it's the Terminator. No promises if it's any good.
Full Disclosure: All expenses for the trip were paid for by the studio.
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