A nightmare guards the perimeter.

Almost seven feet tall, it lumbers back and forth, clutching a huge gun. Behind it huge turbines roar to life and massive fireballs explode from pipes. In the distance is an old power plant, eerie blue lights pouring from broken windows. Red eyes blaze from the figure’s sallow, unearthly face, which looks like something from a Bernie Wrightson fever dream. Looking closer it becomes obvious that this is no human being, and that face is an ill-fitting rubber mask stretched over a metallic skull. It’s a T600, standing on the edge of what was once San Francisco but is now Skynet City.

In the shadows crouches a figure, beaten and battered. His leather jacket is stained with blood and torn to pieces. A blast of fire illuminates his face and shines off the metal of his skull, half-exposed beneath shredded flesh. When the T600 turns away to continue its rounds the figure darts out of hiding, into the destroyed remains of an old church. Adobe walls are all that stand; pews and bones sit exposed to the night sky. There are hundreds of skulls littering the ground. Maybe this was a place where terrified people sought refuge on Judgment Day.

The figure carefully makes his way through the ruins, aware that the robotic senses of the T600 can pick up the slightest sound and movement. As he comes into the chapel it seems like he has made it past this obstacle… and then a huge, heavily armored and armed earth-mover crashes through one of the walls, just feet from him, sending him sprawling in a crowd of debris and dust.

And it’s all done in one take.

This is the set of McG’s Terminator Salvation on a summery night in the deserts of New Mexico. I’ve been on set a long time – it’s well past midnight and we got there when the sun was still high in the sky – but it was worth the wait. McG and his crew have spent hours working out this exceptionally complicated shot. There’s a camera on a huge crane and an operator with a Steadicam, a series of explosions, a stunt involving a leading actor and a vehicle, and a heavy and uncomfortable T600 suit to all be wrangled and directed and made to work together so that the entire sequence could play out without a cut. After rehearsing it again and again and again, McG orders a filmed run-through without the earth-mover, one with the earth-mover busting through the wall and one more without the mover but with the hole in the wall. It’s that second take when things get really tense – you fuck that up and you have to wait for a new wall to be built.

But despite the huge amount of pressure, despite the crushing logistics, McG is smiling and chatty. He’s joking with his crew and with the gaggle of reporters he insisted stand behind his director’s chair so that we could get the best look at the action in person and on the monitor. There’s a dozen of us hovering over him but he couldn’t be happier, and it soon becomes obvious that the crew kind of blames us for how long this is taking; McG just can’t help talking with us.

This is the culmination of a long day that brought us through the entire film in painting, storyboard and model form; that brought us to a room filled with concept art for more kinds of Terminators and killer robots than anyone had imagined existed; that sat us down with the whole cast (except for the elusive Christian Bale); and that had us eating dinner with McG before going to his trailer and seeing ten minutes of ass-kicking footage (much of which ended up at Comic Con, and some of which looked to be really pushing the boundaries of modern PG-13, especially a shot of Moon Bloodgood topless). It was a long day that completely and totally changed my opinion on Terminator Salvation.

I have to be honest: walking onto that set I had little hope for the movie. Along with Aint It Cool, we had broken some stories about the plot of the film that infuriated fans and that pointed to a movie that might be on the exact wrong path. McG had come out and denied everything, but after just a couple of minutes in the art department I knew that his denials didn’t hold a lot of water; many of the things that we had reported remained irrefutably true. The identity of that figure sneaking around the T600, for instance, and how he ends up with the human resistance. The characters in the movie and their roles in the plot. But there had been changes, and as I looked over the storyboards and concept art I saw a movie that had been subtly altered from the pre-strike script I knew. Subtly altered in what looked like all the right ways.

There were some things being hidden from us… or maybe there were some things that were still in flux. It was no secret that Jonathan Nolan was rewriting the script for McG, and some elements – like the highly controversial ending – seemed up in the air. But what was there was epic in scope and dense in action. This is a film that is constantly moving the action forward, as it should be with this franchise, but it’s also an entry in the franchise that is staking its own place and going places at which Jim Cameron only hinted. Fans disappointed by Terminator 3‘s endlessly bright and sunny scenes will be happy that this dystopia is a dark one, with many of the key scenes set at night. Since the future that we saw in Terminator and T2 was changed when Judgment Day didn’t happen in 1997, McG and Nolan are free to play with our expectations in interesting ways. And they do.

I’ll be bringing you interviews and some more detailed impressions of what I saw at a later date. In the meantime, allow yourselves to get excited (although the cool new trailer probably already helped with that).