Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 15, 2020)
Apparently his 87 planned sequels to 2009’s Avatar don’t keep James Cameron busy enough. In addition to all the work involved with those movies, the filmmaker took time for 2018’s James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction.
A six-part documentary series that ran on the AMC channel, Story covers a mix of topics. All six episodes appear in broadcast order on this 2-disc set, and the synopses come from the AMC website.
Alien Life (42:19): “From its earliest days, science fiction has asked whether or not we're alone in the universe. What can aliens teach us about ourselves?”
“Life” features comments from filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Roland Emmerich, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Paul WS Anderson and Christopher Nolan, physicist/science writer Sidney Perkowitz, film critic Amy Nicholson, visual effects director Douglas Trumbull, Ars Technica senior tech culture editor Annalee Newitz, screenwriters Terri Tatchell, NK Jemison, James V. Hart, Dean Devlin and Eric Heisserer, musician Sean Ono Lennon, authors Nalo Hopkinson, Ted Chiang, Blair Davis, Gary K. Wolfe, Ken Liu and Nnedi Okorafor, science journalist Adam Rutherford, MST3K head writer Elliott Kalan, UCLA professor Vivian Carol Sobchack, planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, linguist Paul Frommer, paleontologist Jack Horner, concept artist Aaron Sims, creature effects designer Alec Gillis, Georgia Tech professor Lisa Yaszek, ET movement choreographer Caprice Rothe, composer DJ Spooky, and actors Bob Balaban, Keanu Reeves, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Whoopi Goldberg, Veronica Cartwright, Sigourney Weaver, and Zoe Saldana.
Space: “What does science fiction imagine about what waits for us in outer space - and how will those discoveries change who we are?”
“Space” comes with notes from Lucas, Scott, Weaver, Goldblum, Nicholson, Perkowitz, Wolfe, Rutherford, Yaszek, Goldberg, Saldana, Smith, Miller, Weaver, Spielberg, Jemisin, Frommer, Scott, astronaut Cady Coleman, illustrator Ron Miller, Columbia University lecturer Grant Wythoff, science advisor Kevin Grazier, NASA Mars simulator Chief Health and Safety Officer Sheyna Gifford, screenwriters Edward Neumeier, DJ Fontana, Ronald D. Moore and David Gerrold, critic Matt Singer, special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra, authors Andy Weir and Chris Taylor, filmmakers Luc Besson, James Gunn, Paul Verhoeven and Gareth Edwards, “grand master of science fiction” Samuel R. Delany, and actors Milla Jovovich and Keir Dullea.
Monsters: “From Frankenstein to Stranger Things, what terrifies us about monsters in science fiction?”
This one brings remarks from Weaver, Spielberg, Goldblum, Yaszek, Jovovich, Edwards, Perkowitz, Horner, Rutherford, Okorafor, Wolfe, Singer, Davis, Kalan, Anderson, Emmerich, Scott, Cartwright, Gillis, Nicholson, Trumbull, Devlin, Newitz, Sims, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, author Bill Tsutsui, 1998 Godzilla designer Patrick Tatopoulos, Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer, creature artist Mark Steger, and actors Keith David, Caleb McLaughlin and Peter Capaldi.
Dark Futures: “What happens when the world goes to hell? How does science fiction imagine the end will come about? And could I survive?”
In this episode, we find remarks from Reeves, Smith, del Toro, Newitz, Nolan, Rutherford, Capaldi, Nicholson, Kalan, Wolfe, Singer, Lennon, Liu, Reeves, Neumeier, Verhoeven, Spielberg, Jemisin, DJ Spooky, Gunn, authors Veronica Roth, Marc Scott Zicree, Max Brooks, Jonathan Lethem, Alissa Wilkinson, James Gleick and Mark Dawidziak, screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Akiva Goldsman, filmmakers Gary Ross and Francis Lawrence, screenwriter Jane Espenson, comic book writer Robert Kirkman, executive producer Bruce Miller, journalist Mary Elizabeth Williams, special effects makeup creator Greg Nicotero, and actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Lithgow, Madeline Brewer and Josh Hutcherson.
Intelligent Machines: “Technology is at the heart of science fiction. Will the smart machines that science fiction predicted save humankind or lead to our demise?”
In “Machines”, we discover info from Lucas, Scott, Espenson, Lethem, Singer, Nicholson, Spielberg, Dullea, Trumbull, Newitz, Gerrold, Yaszek, Kalan, Perkowitz, Moore, Goldsman, Capaldi, Edwards, Gillis, Brooks, Hopkinson, Wolfe, Goldberg, Westworld executive producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, musician Reggie Watts, graphic designer Gerald McFetridge, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick.
Time Travel: “A look at how science fiction time travel offers the chance to correct history's mistakes - while creating entirely new ones.”
For the final episode, we hear from Reeves, Schwarzenegger, Yaszek, Spielberg, Capaldi, Gleick, Spielberg, Jonathan Nolan, Wolfe, Newitz, Gordon-Levitt, Singer, Gerrold, Christopher Nolan, Lithgow, Nicholson, Goldblum, Weir, Lethem, Rutherford. screenwriters Ed Solomon, Danny Rubin and Bob Gale, Brown University professor Sylvester James Gates, filmmakers Simon Wells, Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig and Shane Carruth, and actors Christopher Lloyd, Bruce Willis, Alex Winter and Michael Biehn.
If nothing else, Cameron made great use of his Rolodex, as Story packs an awfully impressive roster of participants. To cite any missing folks would enter the realm of extreme nitpicking, as we get a veritable who’s who here.
That becomes one strong aspect of Story, as does its scope. The series really attempts to discuss a broad array of efforts underneath each of the genre subheadings, so while we again could note some absent titles, this would miss the forest, so to speak.
Unfortunately, I think the “kitchen sink” approach makes Story too superficial. Each episode runs about 42 minutes, and we cover a dozen or more projects per program.
Do the math and we find ourselves with precious little time to really delve into the various movies and TV shows. To get into these efforts in a satisfying manner, Story would need to run at least three times as long as it does.
As a result, the episodes can feel like teasers a lot of the time. Though some projects receive better exploration than others, we still lack the space to get into them in a fulfilling manner.
Rather than dig into so many productions, Story would likely work better with a more limited scope, one that focused more heavily on the interviews Cameron conducts himself. The vast majority of the participants don’t meet with Cameron, but he sits with Spielberg, Lucas, Scott, Schwarzenegger, del Toro and Nolan.
These conversations offer the most intriguing aspect of the series, as it’s cool to see Cameron converse with his cinematic peers. Cameron brings a perspective and a sense of clout a journalist would lack, so the more of these moments we could see, the better.
Alas, the Cameron interviews fill a depressingly small percentage of the series. While this approach would’ve limited the series’ scope, I think a version of Story that almost entirely stayed with the six Cameron-run conversations would become more detailed and fulfilling.
In addition, a more succinct focus per topic would work better. Each episode approaches the subjects in a nearly haphazard manner, as we zip from one movie/TV show to another without a tremendous sense of logic.
Cliché as it may seem, I think a more chronological POV would seem more effective. Show us the development of stories about alien visitors, for instance, rather than pop from 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind to 1996’s Independence Day to 1953’s War of the Worlds to 1982’s ET the Extra-terrestrial and so on.
Granted, I get why Cameron and company wanted such a “broad umbrella” approach to Story. This choice allows the series to pack in a huge array of projects and it gives us a star-studded roster of participants.
And I don’t want to leave the impression that Story fails to become an enjoyable series. With so many big names and so many famous projects, the programs move at a good pace and keep us engaged.
Engaged, but a little disappointed, just because the episodes tend to lack the level of depth they need to truly satisfy. As it stands, Story of Science Fiction offers an entertaining series that falls short of the mark due to its superficial nature.