AMC’s six-part event series, James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, flies under the cable channel’s AMC Visionaries banner. The banner seems a way of underlining the impressive lineup of filmmakers, writers, and actors who appear on the series, either as an interview subject with Cameron himself, or as one of the many talking heads enlisted to offer additional commentary on the episode’s specific topic at hand, as well as further insight into the stories that are being used as exemplars of the genre.
The Story of Science Fiction, then, works as an exploration on the influence science fiction has had on popular culture, and also as a celebration of the genre and, naturally, the filmmaker’s whose movies not only popularized it and helped bring it into the mainstream, but turned it into one of the most dominant forces in Hollywood, at least from a moneymaking standpoint. As such, it’s fitting that Cameron not only serve as the series’ host, having directed some of the biggest and most influential science fiction films around, but also that his films are often times used as examples of what the show is talking about.
To even things out a bit and not turn the series into a prolonged discussion solely about Cameron’s oeuvre — though there’s enough there to warrant such a series — the Story of Science Fiction offers up a conversation with an impressive roster of directors, one that includes Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, and more. And that’s just the filmmakers who’ve agreed to have a conversation about their films and the inspirations behind them while seated at a table across from Cameron. The rest of each hour-long episode (with commercials, of course) is filled with an equally impressive array of authorities on the subject of sci-fi storytelling. Then there's the stars. The first episode alone, features appearances by Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, and more.
In other words, as far as the presentation is concerned, the series certainly feels very much like the event it is being billed as. And the result is that, although it leans heavily on a talking head format, the Story of Science Fiction somehow manages to feel more like an intimate conversation centered on a topic many people — involved in the series and otherwise — feel a close connection with. That intimacy, manufactured or otherwise, may only scratch the surface of the ideas being explored in many of these films, but it nevertheless comes across as genuine, turning the series into a kind of love letter to genre films and especially the directors behind many of the most popular ones.
Though it would have been a sight to behold, Cameron eschews a roundtable discussion for something more controlled. That translates into a one-on-one conversation on a vaguely science fiction-y set with some stark lighting, between Cameron and his filmmaker of choice. And in order to make the episodes distinct, and keep the conversation on task, the series breaks the discussion down into more manageable chats about specific conventions of the genre. For instance, the first episode, is all about aliens and humankind’s fascination with the good, the bad, and the ugly of creatures and advanced civilizations venturing to our little planet from the farthest reaches of space.
While it may seem limiting, the conversation surrounding something like aliens turns out to be surprisingly robust. That has a lot to do with the fact that guys like Spielberg and Scott (and Cameron, we mustn’t forget about him!) have had a hand in creating some of the most iconic extraterrestrials every committed to celluloid. Cameron essentially starts off with the series' biggest swing, bringing on Spielberg to discuss Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., before swerving in the opposite direction to talk with Scott about Alien — which, of course, Cameron followed up with Aliens. The discussion offers much more than just behind-the-scenes look into the story's inspiration or the film’s production — though taking a look at H.R. Giger’s original designs for the xenomorph never gets old — and leans more into an exploration of each director's intent with regard to how their aliens were going to be depicted.
The juxtaposition of the friendly aliens from Close Encounters or E.T. with Giger’s threatening, psychosexual xenomorph works in the episode’s favor, showing the ways in which various filmmakers interpret and present two sides of essentially the same coin. The same is true when the episode asks Spielberg, Dean Devlin, and Roland Emmerich about the intent behind cataclysmic invasion films like Independence Day and War of the Worlds. That examination, naturally, leads down a deep rabbit hole, one that includes the various adaptations of H.G. Wells’ famous story, and even the author’s own inspirations.
That may be the real value in James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction: the willingness to cover its bases beyond the conversational approach to Cameron speaking with his fellow filmmakers. It also gives the series a chance to offer up a little diversity in terms of the voices that are being heard. While it would have been nice to see Cameron discuss the cultural implications of District 9 with someone like sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor or anyone else who isn’t a super famous director, having other voices present in the series does assuage those concerns to a certain degree.
For the most part, James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction takes the Visionaries label seriously, and it is a impressive array of guests sharing their knowledge and love of the genre with the show’s host. The mileage most viewers get from the discussions being had will likely vary, as there are some interesting and insightful nuggets dispersed throughout the six-episode series. For the most part, the show acts primarily as a love letter to sci-fi films and especially to the directors who made them. But if you’re a sci-fi lover, you probably couldn’t ask for more.
James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction continues next Monday with ‘Space Exploration’ @10pm on AMC.