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, 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.”