How ‘Terminator: Genisys’ plans to time-travel: From the NASA set

NEW ORLEANS – It seems right that a facility once used to make components of the Saturn V rocket for NASA now houses a film set being used to catapult the imagination far into the future.   

Jules Verne wrote “From the Earth to the Moon,” as science fiction, but the Saturn V helped make traveling to the moon a reality.  The tables are now turned as a wholly different, and quite fictional, sort of traveling is being contemplated inside, and it is more of the H.G. Wells variety than the sort Verne envisioned.

On a huge sound stage inside that NASA facility is machine constructed for traveling, not in time but in space.  Referred to by those working on the production as a “TDD,” the machine on set is a Time Displacement Device, and it looks as though the entire thing can spin around creating something of a sphere around those in the device.   But, you know the results of that spinning already – it drops travelers off from the future into our present, usually to wage war against one another, and sometimes those travelers have a metal endoskeleton.

In July of 2015, more than 30 years after the first film was released,  a new “Terminator” is going to hit the big screen, and the people here in New Orleans want to make sure it lands with a massive impact.  They hope that this TDD, and a few more will help them stick that landing.   It is not yet 2015 though, it is July, 2014, and there is a lot that has to happen between now and then.

Lest you think this is some sort of slap-dash quick cash-in, here on set many folks talk of it as, hopefully, a trilogy (something that has been confirmed since).  The producers, in fact, tell us that they know exactly what the final shot is in that final film.  

That is a pretty bold statement considering that the third and fourth films in the franchise never reached the lofty heights of the first two and that any direction those films indicated that future ones might go seem to have been left by the wayside.  No one is saying that films three and four aren't canon, but there is a lot more talk about the first two than the last two.

Everyone on set is secretive about the trilogy, but they are secretive about more than just that overarching three movie tale – they're secretive about this particular film, constantly watching what they say to us and making sure they don't divulge anything they shouldn't.  Even so, we do learn a whole lot, so before I go any further, let's break down some of what this film definitely is about.

“Terminator: Genisys” (during our visit it is known as “Terminator: Genesis”) takes place in three different time periods – 1984, 2017, and 2029.  Notably, that first time period, 1984, is the same one seen in the original film.  This new movie aims to take everything we know about that “Terminator” and throw it on its ear.  

A Skydance executive tell us, “It”s not a traditional remake, nor it is a continuation or a sequel, nor is it exactly a reboot. In a sense, it”s a reimagining.  And it certainly follows the same kind of logic as the JJ Abrams '[Star] Trek,' which is that the beauty of any world where you have time travel is that you can introduce pivotal different events that then fracture off a whole new timeline and let you explore how things would have happened if one major thing had gone differently.”  It is, “somewhere between 'Back to the Future 2' and the 2009 'Trek.'”

“Genisys” starts in 2029, which is when John Connor (here played by Jason Clarke) sending Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn in the original, Jai Courtney here) back in time to save Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton originally, now Emilia Clarke) from the first Terminator.  But, as the executive says, “when Kyle gets back, he finds that something is different than it was supposed to be. And he suddenly finds himself in a version of the past that is not the one he has been prepared for, with a slightly different mission and a different set of allies, and circumstances, and enemies.”

What then is this new “Terminator” movie?  Director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) says that it is something of a “dysfunctional family story.”  As he puts it, “The first film was a love story. It was also a horror film. The second one was a father/son story, but it was also a beautifully built thriller.”  Here, “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.”

If you have seen all four of the “Terminator” movies, you know that there is a big change in direction after the second movie.  “Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” offer up a viewpoint in which the apocalypse doesn't have to arrive, in which it can be avoided.  “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” ends with the notion that Judgment Day could never be prevented, that Skynet would always rise, and the fourth movie, “Terminator: Salvation,” takes place entirely in that post-Skynet becoming aware future.

Two important things to note here.  First, Alan Taylor says of the previous entries, “The first two are just completely our compass, our inspiration, and our guide. We can”t be what they are. 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.”  Later, he adds, that the idea that nothing is written, that there is no fate but what we make of it is, “plenty terrifying.”

As for the second thing to note, there is a huge difference between the way we see an interconnected, computer-controlled, world then and the way we do now.  One of the recurrent themes we hear in New Orleans is the idea that maybe we humans, almost want Skynet, almost want to be controlled like that.  Taylor makes it clear, saying, “There”s a natural human compulsion to chase after freedom and then to actually hand it over as fast as possible and get away from it.”  

That is, to some extent, about being tied to our devices (where are you reading this, on your internet-enabled phone?), and more than that, being dependent on them.  Not being able to live without them.  Is it a large leap then to contemplate the terror of that relationship flipping from how it started – from us controlling them to them controlling us (have they started to already)?  That is, after all, what the “Terminator” franchise is all about.

Want another example of technology being incredibly different from when those two movies first hit the screen – Jai Courtney used to watch “T2” on VHS growing up.  That is, at minimum, two generations old and relatively unthinkable today.  However, his telling us that he believes that's how he remembers repeatedly watching it-he was born two years after the original came out-is just another example of how well ingrained into our collective consciousness those first two movies are.

“I know that film very, very well,” Courtney says.  He clarifies that he wasn't “a devout follower of the series per se but definitely familiar with it. “

Emilia Clarke's story is somewhat different.  “I have an older brother and he made me watch it from a young age.  And so it's kind of – I fell in love with it then and now I have like massive brother credit, which never gets old.”

Even there, it is inescapable – “Terminator” is one of those franchises that means different things to different people but seems to exist in our collective consciousness.  I was old enough to go see “Judgment Day” in the theaters, and remember being there opening weekend for it (front row because the theater was sold out).

As “Genisys” deals with parts of that original 1984 storyline, there is some recreation of elements of that original movie, things like the clothes and shoes.  Kyle Reese's clothes in the original film-the shirt, the duster, and the shoes-are yet another iconic set of elements.  For this film, costume Designer Susan Matheson actually went so far as to get Nike to remake the Vandal shoes that were used in the first film.  Courtney jokingly says of them, “The Nike's are perhaps the best part about this movie and possibly the only reason I'm here.  I'm hoping to steal a pair.”

Even if much is kept secret from us here on set, it all still truly does feel like a labor of love.  We aren't just here in July, we are here on July 11th, and Jason Clarke isn't only not scheduled to be on set at all, but he's in the middle of a massive promotional push for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” which is opening today.  Despite that hectic schedule, Clarke makes it a point to sit down with us and talk to us about taking on the role of Connor.

“I always think a film stands and then falls on its script and this script is good, it's really good.  And then you want integrity and smart people to back it up, but also diligent and hard-working people,” the actor tells us.  He adds, “People are invested in this.  They really are.”

John Connor is, of course, just as legendary a figure as Kyle Reese or Sarah Connor or even Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, but Connor is also different from those characters.  You may have a favorite John Connor, but he's been played by Edward Furlong, Michael Edwards, Nick Stahl, and Christian Bale which is to say that there isn't a single iconic representation of him.

Even Jason Clarke though goes back to “T2″ to talk about his character.  ” I looked at Eddie Furlong a lot.  There's a lot of legacy and a lot of things to grow.”  

We are going to have to wait to see how it all grows, how it all comes together.  Not all of that is in evidence on this day.

That big set we saw with the making of a Time Displacement Device?  It is surrounded by a green screen.  Arnold Schwarzenegger's make-up and prosthetic setup also contains some green on it.  There is a whole lot of computer work that has to happen in order to make the film come together and that is one of the things we don't get to see on this day.  

As the weeks and months pass, more and more of that will be uncovered, we will get better looks at the villains (the trailer released today shows something we heard bits and pieces about but got no confirmation on in New Orleans), and the technology, and hints at the story.  We don't know if we really will ever see that final shot of the final film that is mentioned, but I for one am curious to know what they meant.