If you’re going to get someone to head up a multi-part documentary series about the history of sci-fi cinema, you could do a lot worse than James Cameron.
The Oscar-winning King of the World is steeped in the genre, from his very first short film, Xenogenesis in 1978, through to his breakthrough with The Terminator (1984), then The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Avatar (2009), and those sequels we’re sure to get any year now.
Cameron’s love of science fiction is evident even in his non-genre work – he approached the sinking of the Titanic with the technical nous of a Starfleet engineer, and even his espionage actioner True Lies (1994), with all its superspy gadgets, spoke to his fascination with technology.
Now, with James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, the revered director and futurist gets to talk directly to the audience about what he loves so much about sci-fi. It’s a deep dive, but a rigorously structured one; each episode tackles a specific theme or subgenre, from the opening ‘Alien Life’ to ‘Space Exploration’, to ‘Dark Futures’, ‘Time Travel’ and ‘Intelligent Machines’. Cameron has explored all these areas in his work (indeed, the last three are very much in his wheelhouse), but rather than just ranting straight to camera for an hour every episode, he’s opened his little black book (or its digital equivalent) and called in the heavy-hitters.
The roster of talking heads in the series is a veritable who’s who of high-concept, high-budget science-fiction filmmakers: Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Christopher Nolan (Inception), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), George Lucas (THX-1138 and some other stuff), Paul Verhoeven (Robocop), Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim), and on and on. Within minutes of the first episode, you’re watching the director of Alien and the director of Aliens pontificate on the possibility of extraterrestrial life – a rush for any self-respecting genre fan.
Add to that writers like Annalee Newitz (io9), Jane Espenson (Battlestar Galactica), N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season), Andy Weir (The Martian), and more, and you’ve got a roster of deep-thinking sci-fi geeks more than willing to share their wealth of nerdy knowledge. Honestly, when stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves and Jeff Goldblum chime in, that’s just icing on the cake.
But what really sells Story of Science Fiction, what really makes it pop, is the palpable sense of speculative wonder that pervades the whole exercise. It’s a sense of curiosity and excitement that is both charming and disarming. The subject at hand might be terrifying; the episode ‘Dark Futures’ offers a choice of catastrophes, while ‘Alien Life’ inevitably involves those pesky, acid-blooded xenomorphs, and James Cameron fans know exactly what horrors ‘Intelligent Machines’ can involve, Austrian accent and all. But there’s a spirit of inquiry at play, and it’s something to see elder statesmen like Spielberg and Scott, their eyes bright, bursting with enthusiasm at the sheer, wild, exuberant possibility of science fiction.
That is, of course, what keeps audiences and creators alike coming back to sci-fi: the addictively infinite power of “what if?” What if aliens made contact? What if we made a machine that could think? What if we could travel faster than light, or through time? For all that Story of Science Fiction encompasses, it barely scratches the surface. But, as seasoned oceanographer James Cameron knows, that’s more than enough to make you want to dive deeper.
James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction airs on SBS VICELAND on Thursday nights at 8.30pm. All six episodes are now streaming at SBS On Demand: