The Terminator is having a bad day. It’s a muggy July afternoon in New Orleans—the temperature is loitering in the triple digits—and Arnold Schwarzenegger is inside a giant warehouse on the grounds of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. Suited up in a black leather jacket with green-painted latex obscuring most of the right side of his face, he is again playing the indelible robot that solidified his place in Hollywood some 30 years ago. So far today the former governor of California has been stepped on and forced to crawl on the ground, and now, as he gasps for breath fighting his opponent, he’s about to get transported to a different time—which, if you know anything about Terminator mythology, is a very bad thing. Especially if your metal endoskeleton is showing.
The beginning of Terminator: Genisys, the first of three planned films that Paramount hopes will relaunch the beloved sci-fi franchise, is set in 2029, when the Future War is raging and a group of human rebels has the evil artificial-intelligence system Skynet on the ropes. John Connor (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘ Jason Clarke) is the leader of the resistance, and Kyle Reese (Divergent‘s Jai Courtney) is his loyal soldier, raised in the ruins of postapocalyptic California. As in the original film, Connor sends Reese back to 1984 to save Connor’s mother, Sarah, from a Terminator programmed to kill her so she won’t ever give birth to John. But what Reese finds on the other side is nothing like what he expected.
Secrets on the set of this $170 million production, due in theaters July 1, 2015, are more tightly guarded than the blueprints that were once housed here when NASA was building the space shuttle. But what is clear is that this new group of filmmakers, led by producers David Ellison (who executive-produced Star Trek Into Darkness) and Dana Goldberg, is determined to reconnect to what made the first two Terminator films so cool and to hit the reset button on a franchise that has grossed $1.4 billion worldwide.
Directed by Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) and written by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry), Genisys sets out to take basic elements of the original 1984 film and rework them in striking new ways. As with the funky spelling of Genesis in the title, the filmmakers want a movie that feels familiar but also tweaks audience expectations. “It’s like going on tour again if you’re Pink Floyd—the audience always wants to hear some of the old songs,” says Matt Smith, 31, the former Doctor Who star who plays a close ally of John Connor. “There are enough nods to the past that people will feel satisfied.”
Twist No. 1? Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke) isn’t the innocent she was when Linda Hamilton first sported feathered hair and acid-washed jeans in the role. Nor is she Hamilton’s steely zero-body-fat warrior in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Instead, the mother of humanity’s messiah was orphaned by a Terminator at age 9. Since then, she’s been raised by (brace yourself) Schwarzenegger’s Terminator—an older T-800 she calls “Pops”—who is programmed to guard rather than to kill. As a result, Sarah is a highly trained antisocial recluse who’s great with a sniper rifle but not so skilled at the nuances of human emotion.
“Since she was 9 years old, she has been told everything that was supposed to happen,” says Ellison, who credits James Cameron’s T2 as one of the reasons he chose to spend his career making movies. “But Sarah fundamentally rejects that destiny. She says, ‘That’s not what I want to do.’ It’s her decision that drives the story in a very different direction.”
History has taught us that it can be perilous to mess with Cameron’s original two films. Terminator and T2 combined a story that was equal parts foreboding morality tale and gripping romance with a dynamic heroine who could hold her own with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and special effects that put the term “liquid metal” into our pop vocabulary. Although Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) was a commercial hit that satisfied fans and critics thanks mostly to the presence of Schwarzenegger (who earned $30 million for that little gig), the franchise went off the rails with Terminator Salvation (2009). The Governator skipped that installment, and Christian Bale’s viral on-set histrionics wound up eclipsing his onscreen performance as John Connor. The $200 million film grossed only $125 million domestically, aborting all hopes of launching another trilogy.
In 2013 Ellison acquired the rights to Terminator for $15 million after a protracted process begun by his producer sister, Megan (Foxcatcher, Zero Dark Thirty), in 2011. (Their father is Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison.) David then forged ambitious plans for new movies, TV shows, and videogames. The first order of business: Recruit Arnold and his Teutonic monotone to reprise his role. “In our minds there was never a version of this movie that we were making without Arnold Schwarzenegger,” says Ellison. The star himself says he expected the call. “I knew eventually that another Terminator was going to get made,” Schwarzenegger says. “People always have to go through that painful experience of doing a sequel, or something like that, without me.”
Of course, Arnold alone doesn’t guarantee a blockbuster—just ask the folks who made Sabotage or The Last Stand—so director Taylor assembled a cast with enough geek bona fides to appease the Comic-Con crowd. Emilia Clarke, 28, best known as dragon mother Daenerys Targaryen on Thrones, relished the opportunity to imagine her character’s unusual childhood. “Oh, she’s just a normal girl growing up in a world with a Terminator for a dad,” she says with a laugh. “What was her first date like? Did he kill many of the dates she brought home?”
That’s not entirely a joke. At the emotional heart of Genisys is the budding romance between Sarah and Kyle Reese—a union essential to the creation of John Connor. “I had never fallen in love on screen before,” says Courtney, 28, who’s played baddies in Jack Reacher and Divergent. “It was interesting to do that, especially when you’ve got a backdrop of the future and the past and all this other s - - -: endoskeleton, robots.”
The film also adapts to our current cultural anxieties. The threat of nuclear holocaust that freaked out ’80s audiences has been eclipsed by our fear of cyberattack. “Skynet no longer has to break down our front door because we line up in front of Apple stores to invite it in,” Ellison says. “We’re constantly giving away our privacy.”
Naturally, a Terminator movie wouldn’t be a Terminator movie without epic set pieces and cutting-edge technology. Even toward the end of production, the actors—who worked 12-hour days, six days a week, for nearly four months—seemed a bit overwhelmed. “The thing I didn’t know about action movies is that when someone is running on screen, they are really running,” Emilia Clarke says. “No one looks brilliant running on camera. That’s an embarrassing day when you look at yourself and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I look like an idiot. I should fix that.’ ”
Jason Clarke (no relation), 45, admits he was daunted by the need to get the action sequences just right, including one where a vehicle flips off a bridge. “You have to be physically on top of [these stunts],” he says. “If you get it wrong, it’s a two-, three-hour reset. You’re shooting at night. Trying to beat the sun coming up. There are a lot of pressures on these big films. I landed right in the middle of Arnold in one scene, with my boots banging down on the ground. I could have broken the dude.”
Doubtful. Schwarzenegger is unstoppable, and this is no mere cameo but a significant role—this time with a whole new suite of technology on his side. In what could be one of the most impressive technical feats yet, the filmmakers plan to re-create the memorable scene in the original Terminator when the T-800 lands at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory, complete with Schwarzenegger’s 36-year-old face and ripped, naked body. To achieve that, the special-effects team has created a “synthespian,” or synthetic thespian, using a body double plus scans of Schwarzenegger’s face from the first film merged with what his face looks like now. The result: an entirely CG head of the Terminator circa 1984. “It’s the holy grail of visual effects,” Ellison says. “You create a walking, breathing human that doesn’t exist.”
The filmmakers are counting on that technology, and the movie’s villain—a man/machine hybrid they’re keeping under wraps—to be visual game changers. “Part of the challenge is to dazzle people with something they haven’t seen before,” Taylor says. “There are elements in our main villain that are straining the capacities of our brilliant visual-effects people. So that’s a good sign.”
Another may be Schwarzenegger’s unfazed attitude toward it all. It’s the end of the day and he’s back in his makeup chair, relaxing in a tank top and shorts. Two technicians peel that green prosthesis off his face using chemicals that hover in the air. So how does it feel to be playing the Terminator again at 69? “I’m 67,” he says. “But I like that number.”
Neither age nor political office has softened his ribald humor, apparently, or his confidence. “When I look at the history, anytime a movie was well-done, it was huge,” he says. “If a movie is made well, if it’s a great character, if it’s well acted out, then people are going to come and see it. It’s so simple.” So simple! Even a machine could do it.
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Nov. 7 issue.