ALBUQUERQUE — Director McG had a bit of advice last year for a visitor to the set of "Terminator Salvation," which had set up shop in a vast hangar at Kirtland Air Force Base here. "If you go too far that way," he said, pointing across the tarmac, "someone will shoot you."
Knowing the boundaries and risking sniper fire -- those are pretty good metaphors for anyone daring enough to add an installment to the killer-robot franchise without either signature star Arnold Schwarzenegger or director James Cameron listed in the credits beyond having created the characters.
"Terminator Salvation" will arrive in theaters May 21 with new faces and a darker ethos than the earlier films in the series, but it is a companion piece to them, a pure sequel -- or is that prequel? It's difficult to say with a franchise that skips through time like some sort of "Back to the Future" with a body count.
This time around, the stars are an unmasked Christian Bale, who is coming off the staggering success of "The Dark Knight," and Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington (who, in an intriguing bit of Hollywood linkage, will star in Cameron's eagerly anticipated 3-D epic "Avatar" at the end of the year).
The year is 2018 and mankind is being snuffed out by the malevolent machines of SkyNet. The man who is destined to lead the human resistance, John Connor (Bale), is now an adult but is struggling with his legacy and the suspicions of his ragged compatriots. He also is staggered when he meets Marcus Wright (Worthington), whose last memory is of being a death row prisoner before the apocalyptic attacks of SkyNet. Wright turns out to be a SkyNet-created cyborg model but one that does not match the prophecies that have guided Connor his entire life. The distrusting pair set off on a quest to find answers, and the path leads to Dr. Serena Kogen (Helena Bonham Carter) and an ending that "will shock everyone," McG promises. The cast also features hip-hop star Common, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin and Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard.
For former music video director McG (his birth name is Joseph McGinty Nichol; he grew up with the nickname), the film is a chance to establish himself in the special-effects blockbuster sector after directing films such as the glossy "Charlie's Angels" and the football melodrama "We Are Marshall." If this film clicks as Warner Bros. expects, McG will have a film franchise as well as his considerable success as a television producer with shows such as "Supernatural" and "Chuck."
"I do believe this is a great opportunity for me," McG said, "and we have a story to tell, state-of-the-art special effects and, in Christian Bale, nothing less than the most credible and intense action star in the world."
Intense is right. Bale became an Internet sensation in February when an extended audio recording of an especially colorful on-set rant was posted on TMZ.com. Some people laughed while others recoiled at his vicious language; after it was spoofed, turned into T-shirts and club mixes, debated and decried, a hushed Bale went on local rock radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) to offer an apology and to urge people not to punish the movie for the actions of its star.
"I'm asking people," Bale said, "please do not allow my one-time lapse in judgment, my incredibly embarrassing meltdown, to overshadow this movie and to have all of those people's hard work go to waste."
The audio rant seems like a long time ago now, so it's hard to imagine that it will undermine "Terminator Salvation" on opening week, but the movie has other challenges.
The defining screen memories of the first three "Terminator" films are the implacable and usually monosyllabic Schwarzenegger behind sunglasses and an oozing, shape-shifting robot portrayed with shark-sleekness by Robert Patrick.
The first two films in the franchise were loud and proud, with director Cameron ("Titanic," "Aliens") delivering perhaps the best time-travel movies ever made -- with some surprisingly soulful moments amid the artful explosions.
"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" in 2003 was directed by Jonathan Mostow ("U-571") and had a tacked-on feel to many fans, but it still pulled in $150 million at the box office domestically and an impressive $283 million overseas, an indication that Schwarzenegger is still a viable Hollywood export in this decade.
McG said he was initially skeptical about the need for another "Terminator" film. At the Kirtland hangar, during a break from filming an intense scene with arguing resistance commanders, he said that the third "Terminator" film left him cold and that he wasn't eager to tamper with the legacy of Cameron's sci-fi classics.
"Sequels that match or meet the first film are hard to pull off, still, I think," McG said. "I know I made a substandard one with the 'Charlie's Angels' sequel, and I wasn't eager to make another one that followed someone else's movies."