Terminator Salvation Set Visit: The Plot


While chatting with production designer Martin Laing, he ushered us into a room absolutely filled with dozens of pieces of production paintings. Then he did the unthinkable. He walked us through the plot of the entire movie. His description is focused on the character of Marcus, so I know he left out a lot of details about John Connor as well as the final ending. But never have I been on a set visit where so much of the movie was revealed. McG also filled in additional details of the plot as we chatted with him later. Here’s what they had to say.

Laing started: “So we start in a prison cell. We’re in a prison in the middle of America. It was going to be Texas but it might be moving it around just a touch. We meet Marcus. He is a naughty boy who’s obviously been given the death sentence and these are the last few hours before he’s put to death. He’s then greeted by Serena who might be Tilda Swinton, might not be, we don’t really know yet (It wasn’t, it ended up being Helena Bonham Carter). But she comes to the bars and she comes in and talks to him and gets him to give his body over to science. He signs a piece of paper thinking he’s going to be chopped up and made into whatever, but little does he know he’s gonna be taken away into her secret lab where she’s gonna play with him. So from here we then take him down into our execution chamber where we give him the syringe filled with goo which supposedly puts him to death but it doesn’t.”

In the paintings, we see the table in the execution chamber is almost in the configuration of a crucifix – arms out to the side. The press with us noted it looked very religious… or like Hannibal Lecter. Take your pick. McG added the following: “Basically the story is a guy who’s on death row. He’s given up on himself. He’s given up on humanity. The world that we all know has treated him cruelly. He’s a murderer at 17. He’s in jail. He is ultimately put to death. Signs up for a project like all of us having ‘donor’ on our license and little does he come to know at the midpoint of the picture, he’s a machine. And it’s certainly not what he signed up for. The irony of course is only in a post-apocalyptic world where everything is difficult does he experience kindness, compassion, and all these lessons that go into his belief in humanity, his belief in self. And of course one society’s garbage will become the savior of a new society.” Laing later added that Marcus killed two police officers, thus his death sentence.

Laing continues: “(So) we’re flying through following a missile fired by an A-10 Warthog and we’re coming closer and closer and closer to this arrangement of wonderful big radio telescopes. And what we’re saying is that this is how (the Terminators) communicate with each other. So the missile comes in, it’s a guided missile. As it’s getting closer and closer you start to see humans wandering around the place and you don’t know is it human, is it Terminator? What is it? The bomb goes in – BANG! Huge explosion. The whole thing comes up in the air and one of our guys falls to the ground only to find out that he is actually a Terminator and this is a Skynet installation. Helicopter comes in, the tread of the helicopter comes down and crushes the Terminator to the ground. A guy gets out, shoots him six times in the head and we pull up to reveal John Connor. Oh, it’s going to be stunning!”

“John Connor then runs to the edge of the hole that’s just been created by this wonderful bunker buster bomb, dives in and comes down to the end of his rope. As he gets down to the end of his rope he fires off a flare to illuminate this wonderful place down below. And it’s just like, ‘Holy crap! What have we gotten into here?’ So from there he and the rest of his group come down to the very bottom of it and come through in the dark with the flashlights on their guns and start seeing the gore of what’s actually going on underneath here. The Skynet chaps, or actually Terminators, are grabbing the humans, taking their skin, and this is the first we’re actually getting a little bit of that. From there they start to free the prisoners and let them go. John Connor gets a signal that people are escaping up top so he then goes up to the top to chase after a fleeing spaceship only to discover that the place down below that he just left with all of his men in just gets blown up. His helicopter in turn, within the whole explosion, crashes and the T-600 which we saw him shoot bullets into a little bit earlier still keeps coming, still keeps coming, and they have a wonderful sort of mano-a-mano fight ending up with a mini-gun into the face of the T-600. The T-600 dies, John Connor stands up and walks away knowing he just lost all his men. He’s lost all the mission and the rain starts falling.”

“As the rain starts falling, we then pull over to the side of the dark muddy hole where we see a naked man coming out of the hole. We’re assuming that it’s actually one of the prisoners that we’ve seen in the cages down below. It is actually Marcus. So Marcus comes out of the hole and starts his journey. Unbeknownst to him this whole thing has been happening. There’s the post-apocalyptic world that he’s now in. The last thing he knew he was being put to death. So he walks in this amazing sort of barren David Lean landscape, comes across a crashed airplane as he’s walking through this wonderful, wonderful place, and he’s like, ‘What the hell’s going on?'”

“In the meantime, John Connor’s been picked up by the Resistance guys in one of our wonderful Huey helicopters that we’re playing with and then gets dropped into the sea. And we wonder why’s he being dropped in the sea only to discover there’s a Resistance submarine that’s underneath it that picks him up.”

McG added the following during a later conversation: “Do you guys think it would be a good idea or cheesy to have Cameron do a scene? There’s a moment where Bale’s goes in at the top of the picture. He goes down into the Skynet installation and fights the machines. There’s T-1’s down there, this that and the other happening. He needs to go back up topside. Then in going up topside, he turns out to be the only guy who escapes. And everything blows up and he loses his whole team. And Command comes out to get him and they come to blame him for what’s happening. ‘What’s going on with you Connor? You’re always the last man standing. This isn’t the first time you’ve come out of there.’ He says, ‘I can’t believe this! You’re questioning my loyalty?’ And he’s in a helicopter and he gets kicked out of the helicopter into the roiling surf to connect with Command. Command being on a submarine. Submarine creating its own air, creating its own water, never needing to come into port. So it’s a world community running the Resistance. And one of the good things about a post-apocalyptic world, there’s no sexism, no racism, no ageism. And we never hang a lantern on that. It’s just shown. But he goes down in there and I was gonna ask Jim to be the pilot. The line from Bale is, ‘Is Command down there?’ as he’s looking down into the perfect storm, and the pilot says, ‘You better hope so’ and kicks him right in the @$$ and he’s handcuffed like this and he goes flying into the surf. And I was thinking I could maybe get Cameron to do it. But I’ve never made a move like that and it feels a little goofy with what we’re trying to do. So I don’t even know if I want it to happen. How would you guys respond to that?”

Laing continues the narrative: “Meanwhile Marcus is on his journey. Marcus has made his way to Los Angeles. He comes over the Cahuenga Pass to see the devastation that the bombs have created onto Los Angeles. Obviously the nuclear bombs went to a few key cities and military installations and things like that and this is his first glimpse of that. So he comes into this desolate landscape. In the same way that when all humans disappear, Mother Nature takes over. So what we’re saying is the plants have now come in and started growing over the Capitol Records building which has fallen to the ground. So you get this wonderful flavor of devastation, but also the nice sort of soft edges of the foliage that are growing over. We’ve also introduced this red fauna. We’re saying that this is an indication of the cancer. This is an indication of the nuclear explosion and what the radiation has done to the world. So in the same way that out at Joshua Tree when it rained about 5 years ago all these funny little pretty flowers came up and no one had ever seen it before, this is the same kind of world. This is just the thumbprint of the nuclear explosion and what it does.”

“So Marcus then walks in to town and as he’s walking through into Los Angeles, he sees a figure over in the distance and goes, ‘Hey! Hey!’ ’cause this is the first person he’s seen since he’s woken up. So as he does that the figure turns around and we realize it’s a T-600. The T-600 raises its guns and is just about to shoot him when Kyle, who’s our young star, t-bones Marcus and takes him off to the side and says, ‘Come with me if you want to live’ and takes him in to the interior of that building. So we’re saying that we’re sort of like on the East side of LA just a little bit in a bit like the warehouse district where we’re saying we’ve got a wonderful toy factory. So we go into this toy factory again where we see a little bit of the red in here showing in the nastiness of it all and we race away up to the roof. Now if you’ve ever been to Los Angeles to the Standard downtown and you go onto the roof and you get that wonderful amphitheater of that beautiful buildings, this is the world. This is our great opportunity to go up high and actually see what’s going on. “I Am Legend” did an amazing job all their sort of destruction of New York. We’re trying to better that ’cause we’re getting up a little bit higher and seeing a little bit more of the devastation and the world there. So what they do is come to the very, very edge and we now meet up with Star who’s our lovely little girl who’s also playing alongside Kyle. They come to the edge and as the T-600 makes his way to the front and is blasting his way in trying to get the humans cause they’re relentless. They’re always trying to get you. What they do is they drop this amazingly heavy train assembly on him and bingo, he’s squashed.”

“What the hell was that thing?” “Terminator.”

“As they’re then discussing, ‘Who the f**k are you? And what’s been going on?’, in the same way that a shark goes underneath your boat and it scares the living daylights out of you, here the same thing’s gonna happen. They’re going to freeze cause they’re gonna hear a sound and they’re gonna duck underneath the parapet wall and then “Hmmmmmm”, an HK’s gonna fly right next to them. And they’re gonna say, ‘Right, they obviously know we’re here.'”

Kyle says, “We need to get out of L.A.”

“So they leave Los Angeles and they make their way up the hill up to Griffith Park. Now what we’re doing here is this is a bit of an homage to (Terminator 1) because obviously Arnold Schwarzenegger goes up there and gets Bill Paxton and thumps him and takes all his clothes and things. It’s the same kind of world. We’re here, we have devastated Los Angeles in the background, we have a Griffith Park which now is completely nuked and all the infrastructure of the ceiling is falling in, so we come inside and we spend our night. This is an opportunity for him to get to meet the kids, get to understand the kids and learn what’s been going on in the world and what the future might hold for him. So here again Mother Nature’s come in and made everything soft. We still have an indication of some of the radiation that’s here. But it’s just a great opportunity to reuse some of those sets that we used in the first couple of movies. As I said earlier, Jeep was very, very kind and they gave us four wonderful cars that we completely creamed and brought into the world. Because the next morning when they wake up, they then go into the car park of Griffith Park and Marcus is collecting bits and pieces from all these other cars and fixes the Jeep, puts a battery inside it, and gets it started. As he gets it started, the radio comes to life and the process of that noise actually brings the Aerostat. The Aerostat spots them, they all jump in the car, they panic, and they zoom off down the road. Marcus, with his amazing strength, and again he doesn’t know he’s a Terminator yet, but he grabs the lug wrench and throws it and downs the Aerostat with one go. And everyone looks at him like, “Wow! How did you do that?” So he then zooms off but it’s too late. This guy here has already called one of the Harvesters.”

“So a couple hundred miles down the road they actually end up stopping at an old service station which is actually a 7-11. 7-11 were very kind and did some wonderful signs for us.” Laing told us that the double helix logo spray painted on the sign indicated that it was a Resistance safe haven. The double helix is actually seen a lot in the film. “So they pull into this 7-11 and as they first come into this devastated world, they don’t think anyone’s there. And then out of the shadows all these fellow Resistance members come along and they start telling their story about ‘Who are you? Where are you from?'”

“In the process of the conversation, the ceiling erupts with these hands that come down and start harvesting people. The Harvester is there sent by the message it got from the Aerostat. It’s followed them to this place. Not only is it catching Marcus and the kids, or trying to, it’s also taking all the people that he’s been meeting along the way. So from that all the humans start scattering like cockroaches out of a nest and the Harvester’s just shooting them and shooting them and grabbing them and shooting them. It gets everybody except for Marcus and the kids who are being very clever and waiting behind the scenes. They then come out and jump into this wonderful truck that we’ve built and reverse… there’s a gas tank on the back of it that you reverse the gas tanker back into the Harvester and explode it giving themselves just enough time to then disappear and make it out of there. In the process, like a phoenix from the flame, this thing comes out and then fires these two Moto-Terminators at them and the chase then ensues.”

“The chase is actually amazing through all these wonderful streets with all these cars that are upturned and blown up all over the place and they end up on this great bridge where an HK now joins the scene, comes in, blows a hole in the bridge and the truck has to come skidding to an edge, goes over the side, just in time for the Harvester to pull the kids out. And Marcus is left with the decision, ‘Do I save the kids that I’ve just met or do I save myself?’ And he makes the decision to save the kids. So he jumps onto the Transporter which is flying next to it in an attempt to try and save the kids and then that’s where he first has his mano-a-mano match with the Harvester. So this whole match is going on. Obviously the Harvester is much bigger, much stronger. (It) picks him up. As he’s about to kill Marcus, Blair who is our beautiful heroine, flies in on her A-10 and machine guns off the arm of the Harvester.”

“The arm falls down into the river below. We think that Marcus isn’t going to get crushed to death, but he’s gonna drown now. He manages to make his way out of this and to the surface and just as he gets to the surface, Blair’s airplane gets blown out of the sky and her engine comes down and knocks him out in the water. So the end of the Act Two we think she’s dead and he’s dead and where are the kids gone? So it’s very dramatic.”

“We start the next act, Act Three, with Marcus coming to on the side of the river, walks over this landscape to then discover where Blair has come to land. She’s actually landed in an old power tower. So he comes up, cuts her down, and they then go on their journey where she says, ‘I’ll take you back to my base. As part of the Resistance, we’re all in this fight together.’ So they go through some amazing landscape again, bonding as they go. They go to an old abandoned racetrack where they end up spending the night under firelight conditions. They’re able to then chat and she fills him in a little bit more on the Resistance and how they’re working to fight Skynet.”

“Thinkin’ about your past?” “Do you think people deserve a second chance?” “Everybody gets another chance.”

Laing later told us more about Marcus’ mechanical side and human side: “In the fact that he has human muscles, he has skin, he has nerves, he has all those endings. He can still feel things. He in his own right thinks that he’s human. He has a heart, the heart is pumping oxygen and blood up to the brain because the brain is still working. So as far as he’s concerned, he’s real. He’s just a bit cold all the time and he’s a bit heavier than he was before. But there’s a scene where Blair, when they first meet each other and they have that firelight discussion, she actually falls asleep on his chest and hears the beating of his heart. He actually cuts himself when he first sees the kids. He cuts himself on the car and starts bleeding. And Star actually gives him a band aid to help out. We all think he’s human, and he does as well.”

Laing’s narrative continues: “From there the next morning, (Blair) then wakes up and takes him to their outpost, their camp. This is where the Resistance is hiding. There are lots of Resistance pockets all over the world. We’ve already seen that they’re living in a submarine. This is one of the little outposts that are further inland. Now we’re saying that this is an old missile silo where the bombs or rockets are obviously gone off many years before, but they’re still using it as their encampment down below. So in the process of her bringing them in, they go through a minefield. And she says, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. These mines are fine. They’re just magnetic. They’re made to attack Terminators.’ He walks through it…BAM! Mine gets him. He blows up.”

“Thinking it’s a malfunction, thinking it’s a mistake, all the humans come running out, grab him, run him inside, strap him down onto our table which is in this amazing facility downstairs, start to cut his clothes off in order to help him, then realize, ‘Oh my god… this guy’s a Terminator!’ We then cut to Marcus being suspended like 120 foot up in the air above the silo itself where he comes to. And as he comes to he sees John Connor and a whole group of military with their guns pointed at him, and he’s like, ‘What? What? What’s going on?’, and then looks down to see that they’ve flayed him, you know they filleted him. They’ve gone through in the same way that you’d do if you were doing an autopsy and that lovely Y shaped scar. And they’ve opened him up and underneath him is the endoskeleton we know and learned from the first three movies. So there he is and he goes through this whole sort of soul searching like, ‘The last time I was alive I thought I was being put to death for killing someone, now here I am. I’m a Terminator.'”

“So Blair, who he’s been having a wonderful relationship with over the long walk to this place, believes that he’s more human than he is (machine) and she actually springs him out of the place. And there’s this wonderful moment at night where she actually manages to get him out of the silo and they run through the mist being chased by the Resistance fighters. The Resistance fighters coming with helicopters and cars and all those lovely things. And as the helicopter is hovering over the water there, just getting to the river on the edge of the outpost, a Hydrobot comes up through the center, killing the pilot and the helicopter crashes. John Connor gets out, Marcus saves him from the other Hydrobots, and they have this wonderful moment where they’re on the edge of the river where they’re deciding, ‘OK, where are you going? Where are you going? What is this all about?’ Marcus wants to go to Skynet to discover what the hell happened to him. John Connor wants to ready his troops to attack Skynet. So they made this deal. John Connor goes back to the Resistance area and starts readying the troops. ”

“And they have all these wonderful A-10’s and the helicopters and C-130’s and things like that. So again in this same sort of bunker environment, they’re using their computers to scan Skynet and try and find a way in and using their fighters to get in there. So John Connor is monitoring everything all the time. He says, ‘We’re gonna go in and bomb at 6 o’clock. Everybody, we’re bombing at 6 o’clock.’ Just before he starts that order, he finds out that his father, Kyle Reese, who we see has been captured by the Transporter, is in there, and he says, ‘Still bomb at 6 o’clock. I’m going in on my own.’ So he goes out and he wrestles one of those Moto-Terminators to the ground, which is fantastic, and gives us this amazing opportunity to show his journey in to San Francisco. We’re saying that Skynet is centered in San Francisco. You know Silicon Valley and all those naughty boys up there are all interested in robots that take over the world. They just haven’t told us yet. So the idea is we get this fantastic shot of the Golden Gate Bridge with John Connor zooming along heading towards San Francisco on this Moto-Terminator.”

“Meanwhile, Marcus is his making journey and we have this periphery. We have this wonderful wall that goes all the way around Skynet. Marcus has to come in on foot and trudge over the thing. But because he’s a machine, the anti-aircraft guns that are there obviously register him as a machine and don’t shoot him down.”

McG added, “And we have Marcus coming into this strange world and it’s a big story point. He’s trying to swear that he’s a man and he comes upon the gun turrets of Skynet and exposes himself and they lock on to him and then they stand down. And it’s this moment of he’s delighted that he’s not dead but his heart is broken for the reason why.”

Laing continues: “So he comes over to the top of that and sees Skynet for the first time. It’s a very industrial place. It’s a machine. You know, machines are building machines. They wouldn’t be doing too much prettiness into this. We have two different levels. We have the one level where machines are just making machines. We have the other area where the hybrids are living where Serena has made her own home. So this was originally based on Pittsburgh. We’re going to be playing with Pittsburgh and again it’s that same dark sort of feeling. It’s nighttime every time we see Skynet and it’s sort of scary with flames and things like that. Below all of this we have the processing area. As the Harvesters and Transporters come in to land, everyone is pushed out very much like cattle and put into this processing area that, when they go through this scan with all these lights, they’re showered with all this water to clean them. And then as they’re coming through to get processed, they’re put in this series of prison cells here. Skynet, registering and seeing that Kyle Reese is in there, snatches him out with one of these machines. So he’s there with Star and they’re coming through with the little girl and he’s, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m never gonna leave you’ and BOOM, he gets pulled out and she screams and it’s scary. ”

“Underneath all of that we then have the Terminator factory. Again, it’s oily, it’s greasy, it’s scary, there’s flames all over the place. But this is the dark side to Skynet. Now in the same way that Dubai has the thing called The World which is this series of amazing architectures they actually built out into the sea, Serena has done the same thing with Skynet. Within the Bay of San Francisco she’s actually built some islands and built amazing sort of Dubai style architecture out on those very islands where she has created her own little serene world and her own environment. It’s very much more high tech than the Terminator factory that you see behind you. But this is her world. She feels that this is the best place. This is the place to be.”

“Marcus makes his way into Skynet, gets knocked out, and gets brought to her. And she fixes him because he’s obviously in a state of disrepair after being napalmed and Gatling gunned and all that stuff. And when he comes to, she’s like, ‘Hello Marcus. Welcome home’ like a mother would to a son that’s just come back from college. And she explains the whole thing with him, how he was the first, she was dying of cancer, and he was the experiment. He didn’t quite take because he had that killer instinct inside him that was still not making it work. So she in turn went on to make number two, number three, number four, and made a hundred and eight hybrids. And within this Skynet environment we’ll see other hybrids.”

“And then within her world we have some fun environments where you get to see a little bit of a glimpse of the technology that’s in place today. We’ll have the screens with monitors that they’re tracking everyone as they’re coming in. This is the reason that they’re able to pinpoint that Kyle Reese is in there as well. But the great thing is that we have this amazing battle where John Connor makes his way through in there, Marcus makes the choice and chooses to be human over being a Terminator and there’s a…..”

“Don’t give away the ending,” our host warns Laing.

“…and there’s a fantastic battle and it all ends. (laughs) But there’s a great battle where you start the fight in this wonderful serene, sort of beautiful, silver environment and then you fall through into the dark world that’s below. Very much in the same way that the Wizard of Oz always hides behind the curtain then you look behind the curtain, it’s the same thing here. We have this beautiful, beautiful area that Serena has created, but underneath all of that is the dark side. It’s the Terminator factory. It’s the processing of the humans. It’s the ripping of the skin and all that kind of stuff. So there’s a wonderful conclusion to the movie, but it all sort of happens within this great Skynet world. And this is the wonderful thing about this. This is the first time we really get to actually see Skynet. In the previous movies you get to see a little bit of the glimpse of the world that they’re in. But this is the first time that we’re post-apocalyptic. We’re really dark, we’re into Skynet’s world. We’re into the whole mythology behind it all. Serena actually used to work for Cyberdyne. She was there when Dyson came in and blew the place up. There’s actually references to that as well.”

So there it is! Laing didn’t cover much about Connor, Kate’s pregnancy, or the leaked version of the ending, but there was a lot there. We picked up that the ending has a colossal battle between a bunch of T-800’s. Hey, I’m there man.