Review: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction

james cameron's the story of science fiction reviewThe science fiction genre has always fueled our imagination, from the earliest fiction of Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to its important role in the history of cinema. One of the very first films was a sci-fi adventure movie: 1902’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), directed by illusionist Georges Méliès. Liberally borrowing from both Verne and Wells, it features a group of explorers who are shot out of a canon to the moon, where they meet some very peculiar creatures..

Cinema is also all about illusion and no-one knows that better than über-successful film director James Cameron. From his blockbuster romance Titanic to the astonishing sci-fi epic Avatar, he’s well established as a luminary in the world of science fiction. He’s the host of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, a six-part AMC TV series from 2018 that’s now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

There’s lots to really enjoy about The Story of Sci-Fi but one of the most entertaining aspects of this 4 1/2 hour series is what I call name that clip. Cameron and his team got permission to use film segments from hundreds of movies, from Jurassic Park to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Wars to Star Trek, Blade Runner to The Terminator, Arrival to The Martian. You name the sci-fi film, it’s probably represented in this extraordinarily comprehensive series.

When you’re not viewing clips from the great films, it’s James Cameron and guest sitting in a relatively austere soundstage, talking. It’s very minimalist. Here he is chatting with his friend and colleague Steven Spielberg:

james cameron interview steven spielberg -- story of science fiction

In the first episode, entitled “Alien Life”, director Ridley Scott opines “if you’re not constantly saying ‘what if’ you’re a fool.” Steven Spielberg shares childhood memories of his father, an avid stargazer, and how those were so influential. Those scenes show up in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg explains his theory of alien life and that he really “wants those guys to come in peace!” Then Close Encounters actor Bob Balaban reminisces about how he landed a key role in the film. Interestingly, Cameron reveals that he loved the novel Jurassic Park and tried to acquire film rights from author Michael Crichton. Spielberg got there first. Cameron and Spielberg clearly have a close friendship and Spielberg’s films get a lot of attention in the series. Close Encounters is very much a central focus of the first episode.

When Steven Spielberg talks about “fighting off the natural urge to cynicism” it’s an idea that every viewer can understand and arguably one of the toughest parts of growing up. Great science fiction comes from artists, writers and filmmakers resisting the lure of cynicism and instead provoking us to ask those deeper, more fundamental questions. What is life? What makes us human? What would it be like to have robots in our image? How dangerous is conformity? What are the dangers of time travel?

There is a lot of reliance on behind the scenes anecdotes in the series too, which will appeal most to the fans who diligently watch the “Making Of” extended content. The feel is of an on-stage interview at a film festival or ‘Con. Much of what’s shared is really interesting and amusing, but other times it’s just another factoid in a veritable deluge of information. You’ll also occasionally wish that Cameron had focused more on a specific film or idea; sometimes a brief mention of a film could easily have been extended to an entire episode, like the coverage of Alien or Pan’s Labyrinth.

james cameron christopher nolan - story of science fiction
James Cameron and Christopher Nolan

The second episode is focused on “Outer Space” and logically features George Lucas, Sigourney Weaver, Ridley Scott, Milla Jovovich and an exploration of some recent films like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Martian. Lucas explains “the big boogie man is the unknown” and discusses how filmmakers must engage the imagination of the viewers. “The night sky is the great mystery; It’s terrifying, and there are things up there so surely they have to mean something!”.

This is a breezy thematic overview of the genre, however, not a criticism or analysis, so films that aren’t necessarily great cinema, like 2013’s Gravity and 2012’s John Carter, are presented alongside the brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the way, George Lucas agrees with my enthusiasm towards 2001, telling James Cameron in one segment that “2001, as far as I’m concerned, is the best science fiction film ever made.” It’s not clear if Cameron agrees.

The full episode list: Aliens, Outer Space, Monsters, Dark Futures, Intelligent Machines and Time Travel. The guest list is pretty epic, including extensive discussion with Spielberg, Lucas, Ridley Scott, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Christopher Nolan, Will Smith, Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver. It’s worth noting that there’s not much diversity in the films explored nor the guests interviewed, however. This is a problem in the industry, not just in Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, but there’s no indication that Cameron sought to add diverse viewpoints, perspectives or indie productions to the series.

james cameron, guillermo del toro
James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro

The series is also choppy and highly stylized, so if you are hoping for Cameron and Guillermo del Toro, for example, sitting and chatting for ten minutes about del Toro’s excellent The Shape of Water, that’s not how this has been produced and edited. It’s rare for any scene to last more than about 15-20 seconds, which is lively, but reinforces the sense of information deluge that makes the series entertaining but overwhelming too. It’s possible that the best way to watch the series is 15-30 minutes at a sitting. Certainly a binge watch of all 4 1/2 hours could result in brain overflow and little memory of anything you’ve seen. 🙂

More fundamentally, while this is tremendously entertaining viewing, it’s also more akin to flipping through a comprehensive history of science fiction than actually sitting down and reading a chapter or two. There’s so much in this series, so many films considered, so many people interviewed, that it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s also almost exclusively focused on cinema, which is worth highlighting, because as a genre science fiction encompasses millions of books and thousands of TV series too.

Complicated and fast-paced or not, this is must-watch for any sci-fi fan and it’s a series you’ll want to watch more than once. You’ll get new insights out of each subsequent viewing. If, like me, you watch it with fellow sci-fi fans, you’ll also likely find yourselves laughing, nodding, agreeing, and even competing to name the clips shown. Overall, highly recommended and entirely family friendly for younger genre fans.

James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, 6 episodes, 4 1/2 hours, available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Amazon.com. $17.99 Blu-Ray, $19.99 DVD. There’s also a companion book that might prove invaluable for more studious viewers.

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