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James Cameron Is Worried About Our Relationship With Reality

Ahead of the debut of his sci-fi docuseries, the Avatar director opens up his prop museum and sounds off on the links between culture and science.

James Cameron Is Worried About Our Relationship With Reality
Director James Cameron attends AMC James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction Launch [Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for AMC]

Imagine, if you will, being tasked with categorizing and connecting 200 years of science fiction literature, art, television, and films–and condensing it into six hour-long episodes.

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Such was the Dantesque labor of love James Cameron tackled for his new AMC series. “The biggest challenge was how to structure and cut through such a vast subject matter and break it down into bite-size mouthfuls,” says the Academy Award-winning director, who worked with Left/Right Productions for over eight months last year trying to get it right. “We only did about 2% of what we could talk about. One might criticize that there’s a little too much of present-day pop culture, but that’s our entry portal for the average viewer. We’re hoping to cast a broader net than just literary sci-fi fans.”

The series–the second installment of the cable network’s franchise of artist-curated histories of their respective genres–explores science fiction’s roots, how they’ve informed subsequent generations of storytellers and scientists, and ultimately spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. To anchor each episode, Cameron interviews Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (A companion book offers lightly edited transcripts.) They’re supplemented by observations from another 100 actors, scientists, astronauts, academics, and artists. Despite the genre’s white male dominance, the series makes a point to include women and people of color through those interviews, including authors Nnedi Okoafor, Annalee Newitz, and Ted Chiang, and astronaut Cady Coleman.

Cameron’s narrative connects thematic dots from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through H.G. Wells, 1930s pulp era, the Golden Age of sci-fi literature in the ’40s and ’50s, spawning authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, the ’60s and ’70s new wave, cyberpunk in the ’80s, to the present day. It also offers historical context for these periods: the fear of communism intimated in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the threat of nuclear war prompting post-apocalyptic stories like Planet of the Apes and Mad Max, hopeful equality and coexistence in Star Trek, concerns about runaway artificial intelligence in  2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Ex Machina, and humanity-decimating epidemics in I Am Legend and The Walking Dead.

Director James Cameron gives reporters a tour of his prop museum on April 21, 2018. [Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for AMC]
“What was important to me on this series was to trace back to the DNA of the ideas,” Cameron adds. “So if you have a time travel story, who first thought of that? Who did the first space story and how did that enter popular culture? And how did science fiction struggle as a genre to popularize these complex ideas?”

On a recent Saturday, Cameron was promoting the series by hosting a small gaggle of reporters at his Manhattan Beach studio, where he is currently shooting or developing several sequels to Terminator and Avatar. The Terminator film, which he is producing, will be directed by Deadpool‘s Tim Miller, star Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, and pick up where his 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day left off; Avatar’s first two sequels are due in theaters December of 2020 and 2021.

He also showed off another feature of the studio: his own sci-fi “museum,” made of props from his films–the giant Endomorph Queen from Aliens, models of intact and sunken Titanic ships, Avatar’s hydraulic manned robots, busts of Na’vi characters, and so on. The Avatar sequels’ not-for-public concept designs tease from an adjoining room.

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Occasionally the pieces are lent to real museums for displays, and for a time Cameron kept the Titanic steering wheel at his house. “Working on a movie always feels like you’re the captain of a sinking ship,” he jokes.

Director James Cameron gives members of the press a tour of his prop museum on April 21, 2018, in Manhattan Beach, California. [Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for AMC]
He guides the group to a table of Avatar figurines and handles some Na’vi accessories. “Anything that someone wore as a virtual character had to be modeled in the physical world and scanned, so we could understand the physics and texture and how it could sit on the body,” he explains. “Everything was made by weavers and indigenous artists who worked for Weta workshop in New Zealand.”

In the context of their representative films, the props come off as relics of time-honored sci-fi warnings–what happens when human hubris attempts to hold sway over nature, technology, and alien cultures without regard for consequence. The genre has its work cut out speculating whether we’ll one day learn from our mistakes.

Na’vi figures on display at the museum. [Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for AMC]
The dusty props also remind about the limits of future imaginings, especially at such an unpredictable and precarious moment.

“The irony is we now live in a science fiction world–we’re co-evolving with our own technology,” says Cameron. “In the next couple of decades, we’ll see the energence of an [artificial] intelligence or consciousness that’s similar enough to be called human, or human equivalent. How would it process that problem of ‘Am I a slave? Do I have rights?’ We’ll be staring at ourselves directly in the mirror and saying, ‘What’s our purpose? To be a parent? Is there something better than us?’ Or are we going to turn back from that precipice? Historically, we’ve never gone down that road.

“A lot of the AI scientists remind me of the atomic scientists of the late ’30s, who saw nothing but upsides to nuclear fission,” he adds. “They looked at it as the power supply of the future and, of course, the very first thing we did with it was build an atomic bomb. Historically, it’s easier to see how the dystopian or dark interpretation of the future could win out. But this is the conversation that humans have to have with ourselves, and science fiction is a great way to do it. I actually think it’s more relevant now than it ever was.”

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An alien model at Cameron’s prop museum. [Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for AMC]

“I’m Most Fearful For The Human Proclivity For Denial”

Despite his propensity for escapist fare–on full display in the AMC series–Cameron brings a considerable hard science perspective to his science fiction ambassadorship. He’s codeveloped a stereoscopic 3D digital camera system, helped advance underwater filming and remote vehicle technology, and made the first solo descent to the lowest point in the ocean. In fact, sprinkled among the press at this event are visitors from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“Science and science fiction go hand in hand,” says Cameron. “Most of the scientists I know in exploration started out as science fiction fans. It was that wanting to know, that curiosity. Science fiction is kind of our headlights. It resonates off the angst that’s operative at the time and helps us see what’s down the road, through the lens of another world, to point a finger at a problem without pushing people away.”

The meteoric rise in the genre’s popularity, commercialism (ignited by Star Wars), and inspired inventions and design (think the flip-phone, iPad, and gestural computer from Star Trek, 2001, and Minority Report, respectively) has formalized relationships between scientific communities and Hollywood. The Science and Entertainment Exchange connects films with science advisors, who often participate in publicity, such as NASA teaming with the The Martian to promote its Mars initiatives. The X Prize Foundation enlists an advisory of Hollywood creatives to help envision new types of innovation competitions. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation offers grants to encourage filmmakers to tackle science and technology themes.

James Cameron and Ridley Scott [Photo by Michael Moriatis/AMC]
For hard science-infused sci-fi films, “as people become more technically and scientifically savvy, it sets a higher bar for the veracity in the films,” he says. (A few years ago, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson chided Cameron for the unrealistic position of the stars at the end of Titanic; Cameron dutifully updated the night sky for a re-release of the film.)

And as the genre evolves, science will play an increasingly valuable role. “I’m most fearful for the human proclivity for denial,” Cameron says. “The challenges that face us are really scientific challenges. We’re turning our back on and politicizing inconvenient science, whether it’s climate change, genetic research, species extinction, habitat loss, or ocean pollution. Science is our way through these problems. Science fiction plays into that, because you see positive and negative examples.”

The normalization of science fiction–which includes seven of the 10 top-grossing films and, depending on your point of view, The Shape of Water’s Best Picture Oscar (though Cameron predicts a pure sci-fi film win within the next decade)–also presents new artistic challenges for storytellers.

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“It’s pretty hard to imagine something that isn’t already on the horizon, and there’s not that much that hasn’t already been said,” says Cameron. “So it becomes: How do you package it, how to you find great characters, make a great story?

[Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for AMC]
“We’re in a strange place with the genre,” he adds. “There’s a huge separation between what we imagined the future to be and what it’s shaping up to be. We were supposed to be at the moons of Jupiter by 2001, and we’re not even out of Earth’s orbit with human space exploration. In other ways, our day-to-day science and technology are racing past what the prophets of science fiction were able to predict. We are struggling with ourselves over the issue of questioning for understanding, our ability to manipulate the fabric of reality, our own technologies turning back on us, and changing how we behave.”

These considerations have him reexamining his own work. The new Terminator film will have a more nuance approach to AI than previous ones.

“When I made the first story in 1982, that had a classic `technology bad, smart computers bad’ [point of view]. It’s got to be a much more nuanced perspective now,” he hints, not wanting to reveal too much of the plot.

The Avatar sequels will be more of a family drama, with an effort to address intergenerational dynamics of change. “What would Avatar be like with the continuation of the same characters–when the warriors grow up and have their own kids, and now those kids are the risk-takers and change-makers,” he says. It’s an approach he regards as a necessary alternative to the oversaturated comic franchise tactic.

“I’m hoping we’re going to start getting Avenger fatigue,” he says with a laugh. “Not that I don’t like those movies, but there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things while wrecking cities in the process.”

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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