As science fiction finally earns mainstream acceptance in Hollywood, James Cameron believes the genre’s awards drought will soon be over. “I predict that sometime in the next five to 10 years you will have a science-fiction film win Best Picture,” he told reporters while promoting “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” which premieres Monday.
Films like “Arrival” and “Ex-Machina” have earned nominations, but as the older guard ages out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cameron believes that the membership’s “prejudice” against sci-fi — which he says “definitely exists” — will fade.
“They’re definitely a red-headed stepchild when it comes to the acting, producing, directing categories,” he said. “Science fiction is kind of a commercial genre, it’s not really an elevated dramatic genre. I would argue that until I’m blue in the face that science fiction is the quintessence of being human in a sense. We are technological beings. We are the only truly conscious species that we know of.
“We are struggling with ourselves over the issue of our own question for understanding, our own ability to manipulate the fabric of our reality. Our own technology is blowing back on us and changing how we behave amongst ourselves and as a civilization,” he added. “I would argue that there’s nothing more quintessentially human than dealing with these themes. But Hollywood tends to pull short from that.”
But as Hollywood changes its perception of science fiction, Cameron stressed that the genre itself needs to continue to evolve from its origins of being too “stale, male and pale.”
“It was white guys talking about rockets,” Cameron said of early sci-fi. “The female authors didn’t come into it until the ’50s and ’60s and a lot of them had to operate under pseudonyms.”
But even now, “women are still unrepresented in science fiction as they are in Hollywood in general,” he said. “When 14 percent of all film directors in the industry are female, and they represent 50 percent of the population, that’s a big delta there that needs to get rectified.”
Cameron said gender equality has been a priority for him. “I want to go with somebody who inspires me to work with them,” he said. “They tend to be women as much as men. In my universe, it’s 50/50. In the general Hollywood universe it’s not. From my films, I like to write strong female characters. it’s hard for me to imagine doing a ‘guy film.’ It’s just not interesting to me. So I’d say I was innately doing that before it was fashionable.”
Cameron’s six-part AMC docuseries tackles various subjects about the genre (such as aliens and artificial intelligence) via interviews with notables including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, and Sigourney Weaver.
“I just thought of it as a jamfest,” Cameron said. “An opportunity to get together and jam. And also a chance to see what made them tick, what got them excited.”
Most of the participants were quick to join, although Cameron had to convince the notoriously reclusive Lucas.
“He said, ‘I don’t do stuff like this,’” Cameron recounted. “I said, ‘I know! I know! If you’re going to do stuff like this, you should do this one! Because you defined a certain genre of pop-culture science fiction, you created it. It sprang from your forehead and we’re all living in the aftershocks of that now 40 years later.’ I said, ‘George, you’ve gotta talk about it to somebody!’ So he finally said yes and he honored that. When he finally showed up he talked for three hours.”
Cameron said the timing is right for the series because “we now live in a science-fiction world. We live in a world that would have been very hard to predict even 20 or 30 years ago. We’re co-evolving with our own technology. We’re on the cutting edge of a big experiment in consciousness and engineering and technology. And science fiction is kind of our headlights. It helps us see what’s down the road.”
Ironically, the filmmaker said the rapidly changing world of tech makes it tough for sci-fi writers now to imagine new things that are not already on the horizon.
“What we’ve seen is this huge separation from what we imagined the future was going to be and what it’s actually shaping up to be,” he said. “We were supposed to be at the moons of Jupiter by 2001. And we’re not even out of earth orbit. There’s this enormous disappointment based on the promise of science fiction in some areas; in other areas our day-to-day science fiction is racing past what the prophets of science fiction were able to predict.
“So we’re in this strange place in the genre,” Cameron added. “I think the genre’s struggling from a literary place because of that. What you find are the people emerging are just the best stylists. Because there’s not that much that you can say that’s profound now that hasn’t already been said. The question is how do you package it, how do you make great characters, how do you tell good stories.”
Cameron said he currently gravitates to stories and films like “Ex-Machina,” which explore the issue of our relationship with our own technology when it has a consciousness. Does that intelligence have rights? Does it have a soul?
“In the next couple of decades we’ll see the emergence of an intelligence, a consciousness that’s similar enough to ours to be called human, whatever that means, or at least human equivalent,” he said. “That’s going to be a major moment for us. That’s going to be where we’re staring at ourselves directly in the mirror and saying, what are we here to do? What’s our purpose? Is our purpose to be the parent to something better than us? Or are we here to continue that co-evolution with our own technology? Or are we going to have to turn back from that precipice and not go down that road?”
Historically, we always go down that road as humans — and the cost is usually high.
“A lot of the A.I. scientists these days really remind me of the quotes I’ve read from the atomic scientists of the late ’30s, who saw nothing but upside to nuclear fission as the power supply of the future,” Cameron said. “But then of course the very first thing we did with it was develop the atomic bomb and wipe out two cities in Japan. So historically it’s easier to see how the dystopian or dark interpretation of the future can win out.”
It’s a conversation the world needs to have, however, and science fiction can help facilitate that.
“You can look a year into the future, five years into the future, 50,000 years,” he said. “That’s why I love it and continue to love it. But I actually think it’s more relevant now than it ever was.”
Of course, sci-fi can be pure escapism, like “Guardians of the Galaxy” (“It’s just fun,” Cameron said) or scientifically responsible, like “The Martian.”
“Hollywood is 100% market-driven,” he noted. “Nothing is done here due to conscience. If so only accidentally and that’s a byproduct. But as they see people become more tech-savvy it sets a higher bar for veracity in the films.”
Cameron said he believed “Avatar” was halfway in between. “We had lots of technical consultants about what was possible within the physical universe as we understand it, but… there’s floating mountains,” he said. “There were going to be floating mountains anyway, even if I couldn’t find one expert in the world that could tell me how it was possible. Although we did reverse engineer a pretty plausible explanation.”
As for the future, Cameron said that despite this golden age of science and technology, he worries that the human proclivity for denial will stunt our advancement.
“The challenges that face us are really scientific challenges,” he said. “Climate change is a scientific challenge. The thing that scares me the most is we are turning our back on inconvenient science. And whether that has to do with genetic research or whatever if might be. Climate is one of them. And there are other existential threats with respect to species extinction, habitat loss, ocean pollution. We really need to understand that science is our way through what’s coming at us.
“It’s too late to go back to the garden. We have to science the shit out of this. We have to think our way out of this. I see people politicizing science and not respecting it as a thing, as a way to truth. People don’t think of science as a way to truth. But in my universe it is the only way to truth. We have to have a consensus among people who’ve actually done some measurements and try to create some analytic models from the real world. Not just made-up bullshit, which is the dialogue today: my made-up bullshit vs. your made-up bullshit. To me the greatest existential challenge is crediting the scientific process or not at our peril.”
“AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction” premieres Monday, April 30, at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.