Terminator: Genisys’ is fresh start, even with Arnold

Emilia Clarke wasn’t even born when “The Terminator” came out in 1984. Nor, for that matter, was Jai Courtney. Jason Clarke was a 15-year-old high schooler in Australia, a world away from Hollywood but the ideal age to have his mind blown by director James Cameron’s story of a murderous cyborg from the future.

As for Arnold Schwarzenegger, well, he was the Terminator - and he warned us from the start that he’d be back.

The four lead actors in Paramount Pictures’ summer release “Terminator: Genisys” came to the project from vastly different backgrounds. But each signed on knowing they were assuming the mantle of one of the most venerable science-fiction franchises in film history, a series that, like the Terminator himself, has taken a licking and kept on ticking over three decades and four films, racking up $1.4 billion in worldwide grosses.

As the subtitle suggests, “Genisys” marks a fresh start for the franchise after 2009’s poorly received “Terminator: Salvation,” taking the key story elements from the series’ best-loved installments - the original film and 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” also directed by Cameron - and remixing them in unexpected ways. Leading humankind’s war against the self-aware computer network Skynet, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends his lieutenant Kyle Reese (Courtney) back in time to save the life of his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) - who, in a twist on the original mythology, has been raised from childhood by a T-800 cyborg (Schwarzenegger) programmed to protect her.

Billing today’s release as a “reset” of the series, the team behind “Terminator: Genisys” is attempting to pull off a delicate balancing act, luring in new audiences who may never have seen a “Terminator” film without alienating the hard-core fans who were there from the beginning. With a $170 million production budget and a potential new trilogy in the offing, the stakes are high.

“It’s not a light thing to step into,” said director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark Wold”). “A lot of fans hate this already because it’s presuming to step on territory they love. The chances of it going wrong are glaring.”

From the outset, securing Schwarzenegger’s involvement was seen as critical. Schwarzenegger, 67, who had sat out “Terminator: Salvation” (he was busy serving as governor of California), was drawn in by the script by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier.

“I felt they came up with some new ways of moving on with the project that I was genuinely excited about,” Schwarzenegger said. “Here was the possibility of making this one really work, not just living off the name and hoping for the best. I felt honored that they came to me and said, ‘We don’t want to do this movie without you.’”

For Courtney, 29, who’d grown up in Australia with the family’s VHS copy of “Terminator 2” in heavy rotation, sitting at the first read-through of the script with Schwarzenegger and hearing him utter one of his most famous lines once again was mind-bending.

“When he said, ‘I’ll be back,’ that was the moment when I was like, ‘This is a “Terminator” movie,’” he recalled. “No one else can say that line. For all of us, having Arnold there really legitimized things.”

Emilia Clarke, 28, who has risen to fame as Danaerys Targaryen on the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones,” threw herself into months of training in weapons and stunt fighting to play a character who, as created by Linda Hamilton, has become a treasured female action-movie heroine. “I loved it,” she said. “I’m the only chick in this movie. I wanted to be like, ‘Yeah, boys, what do you got?’”

As fans have picked apart and debated every scrap of fresh news about the film - including the revelation that, in “Genisys,” John Connor is not the hero that he first appears to be - Jason Clarke, 45, has tried to avoid the noise. “I steer clear of it,” he said. “Yeah, there’s the legacy and stuff like that, but you can only give it your best - and that’s what we did. We ticked our boxes. We worked really hard.”

Schwarzenegger, who packed on 10 extra pounds of muscle to get back into killing-machine shape, said he had little trouble slipping back into the role that helped launch him to superstardom more than 30 years ago. “It’s like riding a bike,” he said.

The only really tricky thing to wrap his head around? Acting opposite a digitally created version of himself as he appeared in 1984, as his T-800 faces off in the film against a younger model.

“To see a fight scene where you fight yourself - it really is wild,” Schwarzenegger said. He laughed. “It will be interesting to see who people will be rooting for.”