It's night. We're in the New Mexico desert, the heat of the day dissipating rapidly as the full moon rises. And we're witness to horror: A massive machine crushes skulls in a ruined church as the towers of Skynet rise behind us.
SCI FI Wire was among a group of reporters on the set of McG's upcoming prequel film Terminator Salvation last June, and what we saw was a key scene in the movie, featuring star Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright as he evades the machines while trying to infiltrate the heart of Skynet, represented by an old power plant in Algodones, N.M., in the desert between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
McG explains the movie, which is set in the years after Judgment Day and centers on an adult John Connor (Christian Bale) and Marcus, a mysterious figure who finds himself in a strange land. "This picture is post-Judgment Day, as opposed to the first three pictures are all present day," McG says before showing us his work. "The Terminators [are] coming back to the future. We don't have time travel yet in this picture; we just tease the idea of it coming. And that's that. And you see how the whole movie is just designed to be a thinly veiled cautionary tale of if we don't get our act together, this is the world that we're headed towards."
Australian actor Worthington is coy about his character, a new addition to the Terminator mythos. "I play a guy who kind of wakes up in this world, and he's trying to figure out who he is and what the hell the world is about," Worthington says. "So he's a searcher. He's Alice in Wonderland, basically."
The shot this night is at the full Skynet plant set, an exterior built around the old power plant. It's a huge industrial building, fronted by three smokestacks, and has been enhanced with faux structures for big cooling towers, spinning fans and large pipe conduits. The crumbling walls of a ruined church stand a bit further ahead. Inside are piles of fake skeletons, some in pews. Beside the church is a gigantic dirty yellow Caterpillar bulldozer on treads, ready to smash one of the church's walls for the scene.
In the background, we can hear the loud ratatat report of a machine gun being fired: It's co-star Bryce Dallas Howard (Kate Brewster) getting her early weapons training.
In the shot, Worthington is in his ruined leather jacket, black T shirt, black pants. Off to the side, an actor is dressed as a T-600—an early model of the familiar Terminator exoskeleton. He's lumbering, wearing 8-inch soles and a rubber mask with glowing red eyes, raggedy clothes and wearing a backpack and carrying a large machine gun in each hand.
The shot is a long tracking shot: The camera begins on the facade of the Skynet building, strobing flashes of white light in the windows. Pans down, spinning fans in background a la Blade Runner. Sam crouches behind a wall as the T-600 patrols. He pauses as the T-600 turns his way, then proceeds again. The camera tracks Sam as he creeps through the ruined church, looking at the skeletons and the pews. Behind him, balls of flamer erupt periodically from the cooling tower, seen through the church's empty windows. There's a rumbling noise. The bulldozer approaches from behind, bright light through the big window, Sam reacts and runs off to the right, the bulldozer crashes through the wall, bringing it down and proceeds, the camera tracking it as it moves to the right, the treads crushing the skeletons and skulls beneath it, an echo of the first Terminator movie.
Earlier, McG took us in groups into his custom Airstream trailer to show us early footage from the movie, even though he was only about halfway through principal photography: quick cuts of live action and on-set effects with no visual effects yet. Cuts of desert landscapes, Christian Bale creeping through a dark water-filled tunnel with his men, flashlight on his rifle; an armored truck racing through the desert; a massive T-600 robot firing bullets outside the factory set at a fleeing Anton Yelchin (as Kyle Reese) and Worthington, advancing on them and stepping on a human skull; Anton drawing down on Sam, who grabs the shotgun out of Anton's hand, a la Terminator 3; the truck pulling into a ruined gas station; a quick shot of a white-haired Jane Alexander as one of the human survivors; a car being blown up and flying through the air into the ruins of the gas station (which we saw out the bus windows as we were driving to set); the T-600 hanging upside down, firing at Sam and Anton; a crane shot of the holding pen for humans, one guy trying to climb the fence to escape and the T-600 firing at him; other humans herded into the factory pens; a jeep chase shot from above, as from a pursuing Transporter vehicle; Sam on a motorcycle leaping over a fence, a la Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Terminator Salvation opens May 22, 2009.