James Cameron has been one of the principal architects of the science fiction’s increasing impact on contemporary popular culture for the last four decades. Now the filmmaker behind “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “The Abyss” and “Avatar” has turned his storytelling skills to exploring the genre itself in the six-part docu-series “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” debuting on the cabler April 30.
“What was important to me on this series was to trace back to the DNA of the ideas,” Cameron revealed during a press visit to his Lightstorm Entertainment studio space in Manhattan Beach. “So if you’ve got a time travel story, who first thought of that? If you’ve got a space story, how did that enter popular culture and how did science fiction struggle as a genre to try to popularize these complex ideas?”
Cameron trains his lens on a wide, decades-spanning swath of sci-fi source material and its constantly evolving influence and allegorical commentary on both the culture and society in the series — from fringe cult favorites like the pulp magazines of the ’30s and ’40s, to the formative fantastic literary output of the ’40s through the ’80s, to atomic-fueled B-movies of the ’50s and high-tech blockbuster films of the moment, as well as the early television series that brought sci-fi concepts to the mainstream to the slew of genre-bending fare currently populating networks and streaming services.
Each episode is dedicated to a specific subset of sci-fi staples, including alien life, space exploration, monsters and time travel — with informed commentary by an assortment of experts, authors, screenwriters, directors, scientists, astronauts and pop culture pundits, as well as actors who’ve become sci-fi icons, such as Sigourney Weaver, Will Smith and Keanu Reeves. Cameron himself conducts meetings-of-the-minds with revered fellow genre mythmakers including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro and his “Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The mission, Cameron explains, was to boil the tenants of sci-fi down into “bite-sized mouthfuls” for a broad audience who — unlike Cameron and his contemporaries who share deep, lifelong passions for the form — may not know the genre’s various wellsprings but have grown up with an appetite for its stories. And, in fact, currently live in versions of some of them, he suggests.
“Of course, the irony is we now live in a science fiction world,” Cameron said. “We live in a world that would have been very, very hard to predict even 20 or 30 years ago, and we’re co-evolving with our own technology. So we’re kind of on the cutting edge of a big experiment and consciousness and engineering and technology. And science fiction is kind of our headlights, helps us see what’s down the road.”
In some cases, though, science fiction set some unrealistic expectations. Cameron noted that there is a huge divide from what many sci-fi movies said the future could be to “what it is actually shaping up to be.”
“We’re supposed to be at the moons of Jupiter by 2001 and we’re not even out of Earth orbit with human space exploration. So there’s this enormous kind of disappointment based on the promise of science fiction in some areas,” he said. Yet, “in other places our day-to-day science and technology is racing past what the prophets of science fiction were able to predict. So we’re in this kind of strange place with the genre. I think the genre is struggling from a literary standpoint because of that, and what you find is the people that are emerging are just the best stylists because there’s not that much you can say that’s really profound now that hasn’t already been said.”
Cameron also said that opening sci-fi tropes to allow increasingly inclusive perspectives is what will continue to make science fiction relevant as time goes on.
“When science fiction first became a genre back in the ’30s and ’40s, it was extremely stale, male and pale. I mean, it was white guys talking about rockets — that’s pretty much what it was! And the female authors didn’t come into it until the ’50s and ’60s and a lot of them had to operate under pseudonym. So science fiction has evolved with us sociologically, which I think is very interesting,” he noted.
But he admitted there is still a long way to go.
“I think it’s important to note that science fiction actually did a service to gender equality back in the ’60s with shows like ‘Star Trek’ and so on,” he said, but “women are still under represented in science fiction, as they are in Hollywood in general,” Cameron said. “When you have 14% of all the directors in the film industry are female and they represent 50% of the population, that’s a big delta there that needs to rectified.”