The latest installment in AMC Visionaries, the network’s year-round documentary series, brings together some of the biggest names in the history of cinema to talk about their most iconic works. James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction is described as “a uniquely intimate, insiders’ look at the origins of the genre that has become a cornerstone of popular culture.” The six-part television series sees Oscar-winning writer, director and producer James Cameron exploring science fiction’s past, present, and future, along with our fascination with its ideas, through interviews with genre-defining talent like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith and Sigourney Weaver. In addition to the star-studded series’ stellar guests, the show features some 100 other experts in their fields who weigh in on various aspects of science fiction. It’s touted as a journey of discovery and exploration that helps us to understand where science fiction’s ideas came from and where they’re taking us.
The first episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction airs tonight on AMC at 10pm and it features Cameron in a 1-on-1 with Spielberg himself to talk about the acclaimed director’s films Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and War of the Worlds, in addition to sci-fi in general and what it means to him. Along the way, subtopics like the nature of alien life, what their manner of arrival might be if and when they come to Earth, and how that would change life as we know it are also explored through commentary from guests like Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer; sci-fi authors like Ken Liu, Ted Chiang, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, and N.K. Jemisin; and sci-fi film consultants like Jurassic Park‘s paleontologist Jack Horner, Contact‘s planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, and Avatar and John Carter linguist Paul Frommer. This mini-series is a deep dive into what makes science-fiction such an eternally engaging genre that changes as time marches on in order to reflect contemporary society and cutting-edge science.
The only downside here is that there is just so much content to cover that Story of Science Fiction has to make a choice: Hit everything it can in the time it has, or slow down to really drive home some solid thinking points for a few focused topics. It chooses to do the former, crunching down the many and varied aspects of “Alien Life” into a 45-minute conversation with literally dozens of filmmakers, media veterans, authors, experts in their fields, actors, and even voices from beyond thanks to archival footage. This is a “blink and you’ll miss it” approach; I had to pause a number of times to catch an obscure movie title being referenced or note the field of study of an expert who suddenly came up on screen. The good news is that this series, judging only from episode one, throws a lot of information at you to absorb and digest, which helps to strengthen your understanding of the long and storied history of sci-fi; the bad(ish) news is that you may have to rewind or watch it again in order to let it all sink in.
Just how extensive is James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction? In the first episode alone, it would have been enough just to talk to Spielberg about his three most famous alien movies. Or it would have been enough to chat with Ridley Scott about the iconic designs of H.R. Giger and their role in the creation of the Alien franchise creatures. Or the alien invasion sub-genre of films made famous by movies as varied in time, space, and presentation as 1951’s The Thing from Another World, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to the White House-destroying Independence Day. Or the difficulties of communicating with a truly alien species when we already have so many problems communicating with other members of our own species, as represented by films like Arrival or the adaptations of Stanislav Lem‘s Solaris or Arthur C. Clarke‘s Childhood’s End. Or even the use of aliens as stand-ins for the marginalized in our own society, those taking the brunt of oppression and exploitation, as seen in Avatar and District 9. Instead, the first 45-minute episode tackles all of these things in a slightly deeper than superficial way; it’s a great introduction that gives viewers plenty of avenues to seek out should they want to know more. (Like checking out Insight Edition’s book by the same name.)
Whether you’re a casual fan of sci-fi or a die-hard devotee, and whether you’re generally aware of sci-fi’s existence in the film world or have seen anything and everything remotely resembling that genre, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction is well worth your time and attention.
★★★★ Very good
Here’s a look at the episodes airing on AMC Monday nights, starting tonight at 10pm: