James Cameron has a lot of thoughts on science fiction. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he made The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Avatar. But in a new series debuting tonight on AMC, he and some friends will be exploring the genre in a much deeper way than those films ever could.
“What was important to me on this series was to trace back the DNA of the ideas,” Cameron said at a press event we attended last week. “So if you go to a time travel story, who first thought of that? If you go to space story, how did that enter popular culture? And how did science fiction struggle as a genre to try to popularize these complex ideas?”
The series is aptly called James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, and it features Cameron interviewing some of the most prolific scifi filmmakers in history, as well as many other prominent and familiar science fiction voices. Each episode of series of the series covers an individual topic: “Alien Life,” “Space Exploration,” “Monsters,” “Dark Futures,” “Intelligent Machines,” and “Time Travel.”
Cameron said settling on those topics was one of the hardest parts of putting the show together. Once it happened though—through interviews with the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, and Sigourney Weaver—Cameron and his team aimed to give an insightful and well-informed, but also broad look at each topic.
“We did two percent of what we could talk about so we had to balance each hour,” Cameron said. “And one might criticize that it’s a little bit too much of present-day pop culture but that’s our portal for the average viewer. We’re hoping to cast a broader net than just literary scifi fans.”
In large part, that broader view comes from not just talking about the modern scifi movies which have dominated the box office in the past decade, but also Cameron’s star power. He was able to use his influence and relationships to bring some truly huge names on the show, not all of whom were eager to appear.
“I had to talk George [Lucas] into it,” Cameron said. “He said ‘I don’t do stuff like that.’ I said ‘I know, but if you’re going to do stuff like this you should do this one because you’ve defined a certain genre of pop culture science fiction. You created it. It sprang from your forehead and we’re all living in the aftershocks of that 40 years later.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to talk about it to somebody, George.’ So he finally said ‘Yes’ and he honored that because when he finally showed up he talked for like three hours.”
Though all three hours won’t be on the show, there is a companion book with many of the interviews fully transcribed. Among the topics both on the show and in the book will surely be Cameron’s insistence that because of the ways the modern world has changed, creating new science fiction is harder than ever.
“We now live in a science fiction world that would have been very, very hard to predict even 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “We’re co-evolving with our own technology. So we’re kind of on the cutting edge of a big experiment in consciousness and engineering and technology, and science fiction is our headlight to help us see what’s down the road…. I think that’s the biggest challenge to the genre right now. It’s pretty hard to imagine stuff that isn’t already on the horizon.”
For Cameron, next on the horizon are four Avatar sequels as well as a new Terminator film, which he’ll produce. And it’s through that Terminator film that his thoughts on how to approach the problem of creating new science fiction in the modern world really shine through.
“I think you have to push buttons and be provocative as well, to be interesting [and] challenge people’s sense of what’s possible,” Cameron said. “We’re developing a new Terminator and Terminator films are about artificial intelligence, [so] we are looking at that differently than I looked at it when I wrote the first story in 1982. That was just a classic kind of ‘Technology bad, smart computers bad’ kind of thing. It’s got to be a much more nuanced perspective now, I think, and hopefully, it will show that.”
And if it doesn’t, the Story of Science Fiction definitely will. The show airs Mondays at 10 pm, beginning tonight on AMC.