Travis Leamons // Film Critic
JAMES CAMERON’S STORY OF SCIENCE FICTION
Not Rated, 270 minutes
Featuring: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Keanu Reeves, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, James Gunn, Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, Keith David, Paul Verhoeven, Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Luc Besson, Milla Jovovich, and Will Smith
Game-changer is a term that people like to throw around when they’ve already used visionary one too many times. I try to avoid using it. It’s weird seeing a young impresario getting either label. Granted, I wasn’t around when Steven Spielberg was making his little shark movie, or when George Lucas was making a feature about coming of age in Modesto, California, but I bet neither was exalted to such lofty heights then. Take us to a galaxy far, far away, or having close encounters with an alien species, though, now the game starts to change for both filmmakers and us the viewer.
One of those viewers is James Cameron.
Long captivated by science fiction in all its forms, and fueled by its possibilities, Cameron has given us his STORY OF SCIENCE FICTION, a broad, binge-watching dive into the genre. Spread across six episodes, the docuseries plays up cinema’s greatest hits (2001, STAR WARS, and JURASSIC PARK) and even touches upon some that only devoted cinephiles might recognize (PRIMER and PREDESTINATION). Each episode has a defined theme that helps keep some semblance of order because comments and thoughts move at light speed.
The episodes: “Alien Life,” “Space Exploration,” “Monsters,” “Dark Futures,” “Intelligent Machines,” and “Time Travel.” With movie clips galore, and a list of commentators from all reaches of the planet, JAMES CAMERON’S STORY OF SCIENCE FICTION (now on home video) explores the impact, contributions, and even philosophical meditations the genre has had in shaping our futures and the future of cinema.
If I were drafting a timeline from where our story begins and ends (up to this point), it would be Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN through Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS, which are discussed in the “Monsters” episode. In between, we have the literary works from H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein, among others; Georges Méliès’ A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902); Richard Dreyfuss with his potato “mashed-terpiece” in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND; INDEPENDENCE DAY and landmarks that go boom; THE MATRIX and the invention of bullet-time; and even some of James Cameron’s own works that have reached the pantheon of sci-fi cinema.
There’s no shortage of talent sharing their thoughts and experiences throughout each episode. Aside from Cameron sitting across a table chatting with Lucas, Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, we also have Will Smith, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Verhoeven, Bruce Willis, visual and special effects wizards Doug Trumbull and Greg Nicotero, Roland Emmerich, Zoe Saldana, James Gunn, and more names to fill up an entire captain’s log. Whoever was in charge of booking and scheduling talent to appear in this series is to be lauded. It’s insane the number of insiders involved.
To get inside-baseball with it, STORY OF SCIENCE FICTION includes insight from Lisa Yaszek (Professor of Science Fiction Studies at George Tech), noted sci-fi authors, and incorporates vintage clips and footage from sci-fi pioneers who have long-passed, reaching out to us from another dimension.
Cameron delivers a documentary that is almost overwhelming in its content. So much territory to cover that it tries to put all its alien eggs in one basket for fear that another season may not ever occur. Since this was produced and aired on AMC in 2018, it is meant as a celebration more than anything else. The docuseries provides a nice overview of six themes found in sci-fi cinema and literature. But it doesn’t reach the depths of “the abyss” (a Cameron film that is noticeably missing – both here and on Blu-ray) – just skims the highlights. What highlights we have are great, don’t misunderstand. However, it does have its drawbacks in how it was presented on AMC and how it is presented here on home video two years later. It retains most of the blood and gore from the movies, but swear words bleeped for broadcast are also bleeped here. (In this vision of the future, there are still language barriers, I guess.)
STORY OF SCIENCE FICTION is highly stylized information overload. Glossy and fast-paced. Easy to binge over the course of an afternoon, though better to take your time. You wouldn’t want to overindulge and have something suddenly burst out of your chest (natch).
If you are a sci-fi junkie, you probably won’t learn anything new. It plays better for the casual fan– those who can recall when the aliens blew up the White House or when another dressed up as your mee-maw snacking on Reese’s Pieces.
My biggest gripe with this Blu-ray release is its advertised bonus feature of “extended interviews” with all the names listed above sitting opposite James Cameron. These interviews are just clips that failed to make it into the documentary, running no more than five minutes in length. A major disappointment to an otherwise fun series.