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James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction

James Cameron wonders if technology is helping kill science fiction

Contributed by
Apr 27, 2018

Filmmaker James Cameron has spent almost the entirety of his career making science fiction stories for the screen. Avatar, The Terminator and Aliens are now considered modern classics of the genre so Cameron is amply qualified to guide audiences into a deep exploration of the topic.

AMC's James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction is a six-part series that features actors, authors, and other sci-fi directors, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott, and George Lucas, discussing their personal affinity for all things science fiction.

In the second part of our discussion with James Cameron, we tackle the topics of influential science fiction writers, the connecting factor of modern sci-fi storytellers and if technology is ruining creativity.

Did you discover any common threads amongst all the filmmakers working in this genre?

James Cameron: They all had their own approach to it. But if there was a common thread, it was that it was unlimited. It was unfettered. Any image that they could imagine, they could create a story that would support that image. For Steven, it was looking at the night sky as a kid and having seen what he thought at the time was a UFO, and then never getting that out of his mind. He always wanted to express something about his sense of awe and wonder about the greater mystery of the universe. That's what drove him to make Close Encounters, which was very personal. Even though it was his biggest film to date at that time, it was also his most personal.

Guillermo (del Toro) also tells similar stories. George Lucas tells similar stories. We're all just storytellers. But science fiction writers are always taking something that's a particular bee in their bonnet, whether it's about the nature of society, or inclusiveness and gender issues, or racial issues, and putting it through the lens of an alternate society, or an alternate future so that you can make a point without pushing people's specific buttons and alienating them. People come to it from all sorts of different directions. Some have social axes to grind. Some are just starry-eyed filled with wonder, like Arthur Clarke.

You make a point to include science fiction writers in the series. Who deeply impacted your creative voice?

I was a huge fan of Robert A. Heinlein, and he's not a household name. I loved his books like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, all of them really. Starship Troopers. Aliens, you could say, was my little homage to Starship Troopers. So, yeah, I just wanted people to understand that there are literary roots to these ideas. We didn't go back any further than Jules Verne but there are actually literary roots farther back than that.

The very first science fiction novel arguably was called Somnium (1608) by Johannes Kepler and it was his was of dealing with the repression of the church and the things that he was learning about the solar system and the moon. He wrote it as a dream that took place on the moon and talking about the people and how their day was twenty-eight days long; fourteen days of night, fourteen days of day. He was expressing science ideas in a way where he wouldn't get burned at the stake. It wasn't published in his lifetime.

Sci-fi is mainstream now, but it wasn't for a long time. What's your conclusion as to why it crossed over?

I think that basically to make science fiction mainstream, they pulled the conscience out of it. In the sixties, it was mostly dystopian stories. You know, Soylent Green and stories like that. Planet of the Apes. They were warnings. And then George Lucas came along and made science fiction guilt-free and fun. He went back to the basic, epic, Joseph Campbell principals, and science fiction became neo myth at that point. And it's continued to be neo myth so we now have our pantheon of mythic characters. Whether they're Transformers, or Marvel or DC superheros, that's most of what's driving science fiction now at the highest money-making level. But then underneath that, dystopian literature is still manifesting in science fiction all of the time. Look at The Handmaid's Tale, which had really good ratings, as well as being critically received. So, The Handmaid's Tale probably would have existed, but George Lucas made science fiction okay.

But why is it so popular? I think we need that mythology. And I think because the quality of the imagery is so powerful right now. You watch a movie today, it's like a waking dream. It's very hard to see the cheesiness, or to see the girder work behind what you're seeing. It's pretty seamless and that's all because of all the advances in CG and so on. I think everybody's got an active imagination and a rich dream life so when they see images like that, that are powerful and surreal and amazing, they just want more of it. But they don't want to have to think too much. And I'm not talking about science fiction fans that are more hardcore. Just the general audience. They want escape. They don't want to have to think too much about where society's going, or worry too much about it. Probably Avatar's about as far as you could go in putting an implicit warning in a movie and still keep it entertaining. But Star Wars doesn't attempt to do that at all, other than to just caution us in general about good and evil, in the same way that myths and parables have for all of recorded history. I think the epic of Gilgamesh probably had the same degree of cautionary content.

Do you think TV has impacted science fiction storytelling?

I think television has taken over in the last twenty or thirty years, really. It's taken over where movies tried to go in the sixties and early seventies and didn't succeed. Television is now the place, and sometimes it's because of budget limitations. You can't do the sprawling space epic from another planet so you have to do something that's a little closer to home. That usually falls into the category of near future. And then near future's okay, so where are we going? Where is technology taking us? Black Mirror is a perfect example of cautionary, near future science fiction.

At one point in the series, you and Spielberg talk about things from your youth that inspired you to create your stories, like plain old boredom. You have kids. We see kids today constantly on screens so is it concerning that this generation is missing opportunities to come up with their new ideas?

Well, there doesn't seem to be any dearth of clever ideas out there. There are also three times as many people on the planet now as when I was a kid. So maybe, in general one-third of people are as one-third as imaginative, and it takes now a thousand people to yield the one person whose gonna come up with a good idea and before it took three-hundred. We're kind of batting even right now.

There are a lot more avenues to get into visual expression and storytelling now than there were when I was a kid. I mean, it was a big deal if you knew a kid that could get his dad's Super 8 camera, then you could make a film. Now you can make a film on a phone and you can have all the post production tools too. The filmmaking process is a lot more democratized than it was. And a lot of visual effects apps and so on have been democratized where you can do just about anything you want relatively cheaply. I think there are a lot more people getting out there and being encouraged to be creative.

But I am concerned that we've become more consumers and less creators. I was a consumer of books and then I turned it into drawings and my own stories. Kids are consuming media just in a different form, on different platforms. My kids are wanting to make their own animated stuff because they're responding to animation that they see. They want to make their own little clips and put them out and all that. I don't think it's necessarily crushing creativity. I'm not completely sure that video games don't imagine our worlds for us in a way that could make us lazy. But I think for every person that gets lazy and lets it be imagined for us, there's somebody who says, 'I want to do that.' They get excited about what they see. I'm trying to put a good face on it because I was pretty spooked by that for a while. (Laughs) I thought, well, the better we get at visualizing stuff for people, the less they need to do it for themselves. But it doesn't seem to be slacking off. There's plenty of good people still coming up.

AMC Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction premieres on April 30 at 10/9c.