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On set with Arnold: Can Schwarzenegger bring back the glory days of Terminator?

Terminator Resurrected

Jacob Kastrenakes a deputy editor who oversees tech and news coverage. Since joining The Verge in 2012, he’s published 5,000+ stories and is the founding editor of the creators desk.

Terminator Lead

Terminator Resurrected

On set with Arnold for what could be the best Terminator in decades

By Jacob Kastrenakes

Arnold Schwarzenegger is walking up a flight of stairs toward a time machine, located on a large metal platform high above my head. He’s banged up, with a bullet hole in the back of his jacket — a leather jacket, of course — and a bright green blob along his right cheek that looks like it’s eating through his face. It all looks strange, but then you begin to see it: with some movie magic, you can imagine the green mark warping into a gory wound, with bits of muscle and metal stretching out across it.

With another stretch of the imagination, the entire room morphs into a futuristic laboratory, occupied by a version of Schwarzenegger that’s more recognizable than any other: the Terminator.

It’s the middle of July 2014, and I’m down in New Orleans inside an enormous, white NASA warehouse. From the outside, it’s nondescript enough that one might assume some strange government research is happening inside. NASA once worked on the Space Shuttle here, but these days it’s regularly rented out by film crews transforming it into other worlds. Today that world is a high-tech laboratory built for the film Terminator: Genisys.

The Terminator franchise has been around since James Cameron’s The Terminator back in 1984, but compared to today’s franchises — say, anything Marvel, Star Wars, or TransformersTerminator films are few and far between. Genisys, which comes out this summer, is only the series’ fifth film, a full three decades after the first installment.

compared to today’s franchises, Terminator films are few and far between

That may be because things haven’t gone so well without Cameron. Cameron’s Terminator 2, in 1991, duplicated the success of the original by shifting its unique mixture of sci-fi, action, horror and — yes — relationships onto a mostly new set of characters. But from there, the series went downhill. Terminator 3, released in 2003, wasn’t a hit with critics or at the box office. The TV show that followed in 2008 was cancelled after two seasons.

Then came 2009’s widely panned Terminator Salvation, which Roger Ebert described as being so filled with action scenes that it may as well have been a video game that you don’t get to play (and you know how Ebert feels about video games). Salvation also did poorly at the box office, which is likely why the series’ rights went up for sale shortly thereafter. Ultimately, the franchise ended up in the hands of producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg, a duo behind a number of recent blockbusters, including Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, which they executive produced. Ellison and Goldberg recognize that breathing life back into this flagging franchise won’t be easy.

But the team is committed. That’s why Schwarzenegger is in this warehouse and back in his old costume. He and everyone else here are attempting to make Terminator feel fresh again — or, more succinctly, trying make a sequel that’s actually good. Joining him are Emilia Clarke, better known as Daenerys in Game of Thrones, and Jai Courtney, who played Bruce Willis’ son in A Good Day to Die Hard. Clarke and Courtney flank Schwarzenegger as he walks toward the time machine take after take after take.

Just about every role has been recast for this movie, with young actors taking over as better-looking versions of Terminator’s classic characters: Clarke is the increasingly tough Sarah Connor, and Courtney is the hapless Kyle Reese. Only Schwarzenegger is returning for the reboot. While some might wonder why he’s still here and still playing the powerhouse role at 66 years old, the answer is obvious: It’s a Terminator film. Of course he’s here.

And with Schwarzenegger on board, everyone in this weird hangar 20 minutes from the city center is actually excited. They all think this new film is going to succeed, and they’re eager to have people forget about the franchise’s missteps. Even director Alan Taylor, whose last film was 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, points to the first two Terminator films as inspiration, politely ignoring the slow train wreck that followed.

That voluntary amnesia goes double for Schwarzenegger, who isn’t just peeved about the quality of Salvation, but seems to be annoyed that they made it without him. With Genisys, Schwarzenegger says, "[The screenwriters] really figured out a way of continuing on the story and kind of ignoring the last one." It’s been over a decade since Schwarzenegger last touched the franchise — during much of the time since, he served as governor of California — but when asked, he admits to still feeling protective over the Terminator.

The trailer for the original Terminator

Ellison and Goldberg, the producers, also express a deep commitment to the quality of the franchise. While cameras are being moved around during a break in the action, the two drop by where I’m standing, smiling and walking beside one another — an inseparable pair.

Both producers are understandably jumpy about rebooting the series — mostly out of excitement, but maybe it’s their nerves, as well. They want to update Terminator for modern times, allowing it to reflect our new technology and fears. Both believe now is the moment to hit the reset button.

"Whenever you remake a movie there has to be a reason for doing it," says Ellison, who, with his gently spiked hair, looks like a startup founder (unsurprisingly, as he is the son of Oracle founder Larry Ellison). "You have to find a way to update it and adjust and deviate, otherwise you’re simply just recreating what [James] Cameron did."

The original Terminator movies were about nuclear war and the opposition of man and machine, all backed by a military AI called Skynet bent on exterminating humanity. To Ellison, that AI is starting to look less and less fictional: technology integrating itself into our lives — and sneaking into our pockets — is the reality many of us live in.

"We’ve invited Skynet into our homes," Ellison says. "We line up in front of Apple stores to buy these things. The singularity is very much in the near future. The bond of man and machine is just around the corner."

The singularity — a term that generally refers to the emergence of hyper-intelligent AI or the merging of man and machine — is said to be a major theme in this movie. Ellison says that we’re already moving in that direction with procedures like ocular implants, but even our reliance on smartphones is enough of a symbol for him and Goldberg to riff on.

"[Terminator] was a cautionary tale about the amount that you put your trust into a machine and technology," Goldberg says. "Look at the world we live in. You can sit in a restaurant, and literally, people aren’t speaking to one another because everybody is doing this," she says, putting her hands out as though she were firing off a text message. "It sort of has Skynet written all over it. It was sort of asking for [a remake]."

"It’s even more pressing now," director Alan Taylor says, when he comes over during a camera movement. "Science fiction is fun because it’s reaching so far into the future. Right now, that stuff is around us all the time."

"One of the challenges was that … now we have a different set of fears [than the kind of paranoia used in Terminator 1]," Taylor says. "Technology is scary to us in a different way. Most people aren’t lying awake at night worrying about nuclear threat, but we are unnerved by a lot of how technology is moving into our lives and starting to infuse our lives. We [the filmmakers] question whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing."

It’s hard to imagine a new Terminator film actually getting that thoughtful — after all, these movies are really about running away from handsome robots. And with an initial trailer for Genisys showing more ludicrous action than in any prior Terminator film, it’s becoming even harder to see how carefully these ideas will fit in. Still, people are thinking about these things on set, and that should leave some hope that they’ll make it into the actual picture.

Terminator 2nd

And you should hope that the production knows what it’s doing, because there’s possibly a lot more Terminator to come. Ellison’s sister, Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, won a bid for rights to the Terminator series back in 2011. She’s since passed the rights to her brother David’s production house, Skydance, which plans to take advantage of the next few years in a big way. Genisys, as its name implies, is the start of something: a brand new trilogy. Assuming that this first one’s successful, a second and third film will shoot back to back. Their plots are already nailed down, but no details have been released publicly.

In concept, this trilogy will coexist with the original set of Terminator films thanks to some complicated time travel jiu-jitsu. The mechanics sound fairly convoluted, but in short the new trilogy essentially takes place in an alternate Terminator universe. Schwarzenegger was sent back in time, but then something different happened — the timelines split. A straight reboot might have been more elegant, but Ellison and Goldberg seem to care deeply about preserving the canon that’s already been created. They’re also huge time travel nerds.

"Both of us have read just about every book you can on theatrical time travel," Ellison says.

Goldberg confirms this. "We have no lives."

The plots of Genisys' sequels are already nailed down, but no details have been released

Genisys will feature a lot of time travel, even beyond this splitting of the timelines. After watching a few more takes with Schwarzenegger, a studio representative leads me out through a pair of doors and into a damp tunnel with cement bricks arching overhead. It’s the dimly lit set of an empty sewer system, and at the center of it is yet another large platform housing a time machine. This one, meant to exist in the year 1984, is in slight disrepair. Beyond the sewer system, in another corner of the warehouse, is a final time machine, a far sleeker and more futuristic model, standing half-constructed, having finished filming days ago. In the movie, it’ll show up sometime in 2029.

On the way back to the original time machine, we pass about a dozen extras standing around in white labs suits, one of whom is smoking a long, silver e-cig. It’s a ridiculous sight, but it’s also another reminder of the growing symbiosis between man and machine. Not man and machinery — not the large churning factory parts we saw at the end of the first Terminator. Skynet has manifested itself as an endless host of tiny, personal tools. They know us. And how we reach that point has always been part of what Terminator explores.

The rest of the day, I’m whisked around through prop trailers and past catering tables, getting a look at everything from laser guns to chocolate-covered pretzels. Just before it’s time to leave, Schwarzenegger has finally finished walking up all the stairs. He heads over to the side of the warehouse and takes a seat in a tall director’s chair. He’s cooling off, taking a few minutes to chat as it begins to rain outside, breaking New Orleans’ thick blanket of heat.

Intimidating as Schwarzenegger is, he’s remarkably friendly. He still carries himself like a politician and knows how to sound measured — even when his passion for the series seems to make that difficult. Finally, a reporter asks him whether he thinks this movie will actually be able to win over fans.

Schwarzenegger, still in costume with that green blob on his cheek, doesn’t hesitate. "I think actions speak louder than words," he says. "When the movie’s trailer comes out, I think that right away it will set the record straight."

Of course, a first trailer is already out there, and reactions are decidedly mixed. It’s over the top, it’s action-packed, and it’s deeply nostalgic — but maybe that’s where, for better or worse, this production hopes to succeed.

"When you see the first screenings out there," Schwarzenegger adds, "the buzz will take care of the rest."

Even if Genisys is little more than a ridiculous pastiche of classic scenes that were well made the first time around, that at least means pieces of the movie are worth looking forward to. Perhaps that’s why Schwarzenegger is so confident. "I don’t think that it’s difficult to win the people over, because people are really excited about another Terminator," he says. "They’re ready to see another one."

Illustrations by Henry the Worst