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‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Can’t Possibly Be the Start of the ‘Avatar’ Hype Machine… Right?

James Cameron's new AMC series tells a succinct history of sci-fi with Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. So why does it feel like its priorities are elsewhere?

Christopher Nolan, James Cameron - Story of Science Fiction _ Season 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC

Michael Moriatis/AMC

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” a new AMC documentary series where James Cameron interviews various contemporaries about the “big questions” surrounding sci-fi. Spoilers, in this context, are purely new information or resurfaced stories from those conversations.]

“James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction” is a perfectly fine talking heads history of the genre. With a “big question” on a new topic every week — “Aliens” is Episode 1, followed by “Space Exploration,” “Monsters,” “Dark Futures,” “Intelligent Machines,” and “Time Travel” — Cameron interviews prominent filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Christopher Nolan as well as other expert subjects range from Will Smith to Screencrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer to paleontologist Jack Horner, who consulted on “Jurassic Park.”

Moving at a brisk pace to fit everyone and everything in, the episodes are both easy to watch and annoyingly superficial. Speaking to Ridley Scott, Cameron brings up how the sexual aspects of the Xenomorph’s body and life cycle are played for frights in “Alien,” but even with additional commentators, the topic lasts all of five minutes. Each episode of Cameron’s “Story of Science Fiction” could be as long as most of the director’s movies, but they’re cut down to the basics, highlighting the right people for the discussion while sacrificing depth for sake of brevity.

Unlike Cameron’s films, though, this “Story” isn’t ambitious. It’s fundamental — like an introductory video for a college class that would last the full semester. So if it doesn’t embody Cameron’s best work, why is he making it?

James Cameron, Ridley Scott - Story of Science Fiction _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC

Speaking at the series’ TCA panel in January, Cameron said he took part in the AMC series to help draw attention to the obscure, unsung sci-fi stories of old.

“Not only do we live in a world that’s been overtaken by a lot of the science fiction ideas in the way that we’re co-evolving with our machines and our technology, but science fiction is now a mainstream part of pop culture,” he said, before citing movies and series from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s that the “Story of Science Fiction” would dig into. “So most people aren’t aware of this. They’re aware of the pop culture iconography that’s right in front of them now, but they don’t necessarily know where these ideas originated.”

Sure. That’s all well and good. Considering its reach and intimacy, television can be an effective and wide-reaching reminder of what’s been lost to time. But why is Cameron making this now? Isn’t he a little busy shaping the future of science-fiction through four new “Avatar” movies to be dwelling on its past? The two concepts could go hand-in-hand, the past feeding the future, but “Avatar 2” is a big deal. There’s a lot of money riding on that film, not only in its budget but in the three more films that will follow it.

Now, do you know why I know that? Because I just spent 10 minutes Googling “‘Avatar’ sequels.” “James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction” has Cameron all over it — the man who said he only wants to tell stories through “Avatar” — and features clips of the first film and a segment on its historical allegories. It’s a reminder that “Avatar” exists, and even though the 2009 film isn’t exactly lost to time, I can’t shake the feeling that reminder is at least part of the purpose behind the whole show.

Given the sci-fi film’s popularity, “Avatar’s” inclusion is justified and the film itself isn’t overused in the first few episodes — the odd thing is the timing. Though Cameron said AMC approached him with the idea for this series, science fiction is always topical. This series could air any time… or in repeats over the next few years, or in new seasons for as long as Cameron likes. Astute viewers will see past the quickly skirted-over talking points of long-dormant films like “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” and note that “Avatar 2” is due out in December 2020. That’s two-and-a-half years from now. But is that too early to start the “Avatar” hype machine? Maybe not if your movies cost $1 billion, and it’s been nine years since the original debuted.

Steven Spielberg, James Cameron - Story of Science Fiction _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC

Interest may be waning, or at least in need of a jumpstart. Skittish investors may want Cameron’s name out there, as it has been in recent weeks thanks to this show, or they want viewers to associate “Avatar” with these legendary works of science-fiction; with blockbusters that, if they had a sequel coming, there’s no doubt you’d be first in line at the box office.

And here’s where things get interesting: Even if you don’t take the cynic’s viewpoint on “James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” there’s a strange feeling that creeps up when you see “Avatar” put next to “Alien,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “War of the Worlds” in the pantheon of great science-fiction alien stories.

On paper, “Avatar” has all the credentials for admittance: With more than $2.7 billion in worldwide box office and $760 million in domestic sales, “Avatar” is still the highest-grossing film of all-time (and No. 2 in the U.S. behind “Star Wars: The Force Awakens). It won three Oscars (all related to the visuals) and earned nine total nominations. That makes it a success by any metric.

But did audiences show up for the story or did they show up for the tech? “Avatar” lauded its use of 3-D and visual effects to help bolster tickets sales; it’s the movie that made 3-D into a selling point, and it’s worth noting the screenplay did not receive an Oscar nod. Time is what it would take to prove if “Avatar” earned its status among the genre’s legends, and after nine years, are we sure it belongs?

“James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction” can feel like it’s making the choice for us. By including the movie in its premiere episode and using Cameron as a central hub, it’s elevating the picture to an elite status, and there’s a clear reason why: “Avatar” needs to be held in high-regard in the future, if not now, as well.

There’s little to no chance that this show will determine the fate of “Avatar 2,” let alone “Avatar” 3, 4, and 5. Those films’ success rides on an audience greater than those tuning into AMC for six weeks. But whether or not this is a preview of the hype to come is an interesting query. In a series full of “big questions” about sci-fi’s past, whether or not “Avatar” is the future of the genre might be the only one in need of further exploration.

“James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction” airs new episodes every Monday at 10 p.m. ET on AMC. For more on James Cameron and his series, listen to the latest episode of IndieWire’s Very Good Television Podcast, listed below.

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