Once regarded as a niche interest, a form of childish escapism, in a very real and demonstrable way science fiction has become the pre-eminent entertainment force of the modern age, and for a very simple reason: we are now living in the future and we need a lens to give us perspective and understanding of a world which changes at a rate our parents and grandparents never had to deal with even through the upheavals of the last century.
To attempt to encapsulate and analyse a century of science fiction media in six hours of discussion, its history and continuing evolution, its reflection of and relevance to the real world, its popularity and widening acceptance among audiences and critics as mainstream entertainment is either the task of a fool or a man whose realised ambitions have always driven him to go bigger, bolder and farther in his work.
From his humble start in the film industry undertaking design and special effects work for Roger Corman and John Carpenter on Battle Beyond the Stars, Escape from New York and Galaxy of Terror which led to his promotion to director on Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron’s career then took him to The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic and Avatar, pushing the technical limits of filmmaking, budgets and box office returns in his quest for cinematic spectacle and perfection.
Told over six chapters, broader than the already wide remit of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction is the quite astonishing plethora of contributors the director has assembled to provide insight and commentary into his chosen subjects, Alien Life, Space Exploration, Monsters, Dark Futures, Intelligent Machines and Time Travel.
His own films having touched on many of these subjects, Cameron could simply have drafted in his own artistic collaborators, and sure enough Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana and Michael Biehn are on hand, but in addition his guests include a cross-section of writers, directors, performers, artists and scientists who have created, participated in or can offer valuable perspective on innumerable projects, many of which are rightly regarded as classics.
Opening Alien Life is a frank discussion with Steven Spielberg who recounts the wonder experienced through his father’s home-made telescope, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and how it inspired him: “If I ever make a science fiction movie, I want these guys to come in peace,” that dream eventually realised in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Recalled fondly by star Bob Balaban for its “sense of wonderment and awe,” that film was contrary to the prevailing tone of the films of Spielberg’s childhood, from the overt War of the Worlds to the sinister subtlety of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Spielberg stating he himself would likely not have remade War of the Worlds had it not been for the events of 9/11, Will Smith observing that alien invasion is “a metaphor for our darker side.”
“The night sky has always been the great unknown,” George Lucas posits in Outer Space, Cameron agreeing that their collective goal has been an attempt to capture that awe of exploration, from the work of Georges Méliès, originator of filmed science fiction and special effects, through to the comment of Professor Lisa Yaszek that “Star Trek made space accessible.”
Modestly, Lucas suggests that 2001: A Space Odyssey remains “the best science fiction film ever made,” while Weaver is more sanguine about the subtext of many of the films in the genre: “The military/industrial complex is the real monster in outer space,” though in Monsters she affirms that Ellen Ripley was “a rocking good part for a woman.”
That sentiment echoed by both Veronica Cartwright (“A woman wasn’t the victim!”) and Milla Jovovich, who saw Alien at twelve years old (“I had no idea women could do these kinds of things!”), Guillermo del Toro says such films explore the belief of good and evil in another of the many one-on-one conversations between peers who have ventured both in imagination and in technical endeavour.
While Gareth Edwards suggests that dinosaurs could be scarier than fictional monsters because they were real, it is not aliens but what humans have created which is the subject of Dark Futures, Robert Kirkman commenting that “The violence of RoboCop is absolutely startling” while Max Brooks considers violence as a distraction from other matters, a theme explored in many dystopian films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Hunger Games, though equally both also break tradition by showing the role of women in breaking these regimes.
“I think Asimov’s rules are very smart,” says Ronald D Moore in Intelligent Machines, “They’re also made to be broken.” His reimagining of Battlestar Galactica having redefined the potential and danger of artificial intelligence and robotics for a new generation, at least until Westworld opened for business, it is interesting to hear how Schwarzenegger, wishing to continue to play heroic roles early in his career, originally read for the role of Kyle Reese rather than the T-800.
The Terminator also discussed in Time Travel along with Back to the Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, less obvious material is also considered of the paradoxes inherent in Primer, Looper and Predestination, an assumption made that the audience is familiar with these works as key scenes are shown without any regard that they contain revelations of the resolutions of these films.
While the series is generous in its wealth of clips there is a marked preference for feature films over television, particularly American, perhaps as these can be most readily obtained in the necessary high definition of current broadcast standards, but this leads to a bias; despite the presence of Peter Capaldi as an interview subject, Doctor Who is mentioned only briefly and Quatermass not at all, to name but one major omission.
The unstated focus on media rather than literary science fiction, the sources of many of the filmed works are brought up only in that context, an egregious blind spot which leaves much of what is offered bereft of its wider context, though to properly present such an enormous subject may have been considered unwieldy; as a companion piece, the British Library’s excellent and comprehensive Science Fiction: A Literary History should be considered.
Archive footage allowing contributions from Ray Bradbury, Gene Roddenberry, John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov and even H G Wells, while those interviewed are undeniably better qualified to the often vacuous talking heads from soap operas given airtime in the equivalent BBC shows there is insufficient attempt at wider criticism or commentary on the genre, and some sections, such as that on The Walking Dead, feel more promotional than analytical.
That show produced by the same network as James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction and known for its extreme violence, here blood and gore are equally present, from Alien‘s chestburster to the overreaction of RoboCop‘s ED-209, yet all but the most minor profanity is censored, with Planet of the Apes‘ “Damn you all to hell!” the worst which is spoken; curiously, the clip sourced from ET – The Extra-Terrestrial is from an original print with the FBI agents bearing actual firearms rather than digitally inserted walkie-talkies.
These frustrations and oddities are small, however, in the presence of so many great minds, thinkers and creators, all of them informed, enthusiastic and unashamed in their love of and connection to science fiction, a genre designed to be more diverse, encompassing and forward-thinking than any other; in the words of Luc Besson, “Science fiction is the best way to open your mind about everything.”
James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction is broadcasting on Tuesdays until July 24th on AMC