Cameron has seen sci-fi soar out of the basement


The science-fiction world has delivered some of the worst movies I've ever seen -- from "Plan 9" and "Creeping Terror" to films that had  bigger budgets but not better ideas. But sci-fi has also delivered greatness, all the way up to "ET" and "Terminator." James Cameron has worked on some of the bad ones and directed some of the great ones. Now he has a new series, talking to people about sci-fi; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Somehow,
science-fiction films have had a total transformation.

They've gone from
the bargain basement to the penthouse, from the outcast to the center
of the party. And James Cameron has been at both extremes; he's been
involved with:

-- The old,
mini-micro days. “Almost all science fiction was done on a fairly
low budget,” Cameron said. “If you think about the B movies of
the '50s, the production values were pretty cheesy.”

-- The modern,
mega-money days, including his “Avatar” sequel, planned for 2020.
“We can't afford for it not to work, (with) the budget level that
we are dealing with.”

Currently, he's
pondering sci-fi history. “James Cameron's Story of Science
Fiction” offers lots of clips plus, as AMC programmer David Madden
puts it, “interviews with lightweights like Steven Spielberg,
George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Will Smith, Paul W. Anderson, Keanu
Reeves, Christopher Nolan.”

These are the people
who changed everything, starting with Lucas. “'Star Wars' came
along and all of a sudden, science fiction could be the highest
grossing film in history,” Cameron said.

One source
(boxofficemojo.com) has sci-fi films in eight of the top 10 all-time
box-office spots. (The lone exceptions are Cameron's “Titanic” at
No. 2 and “Furious 7” at No. 6; his “Avatar” is No. 1.)

And no, that's not
what was expected. “Science fiction was the redheaded stepchild of
movies,” said Cameron, 63. “It was not considered to be a very
lofty genre.”

As a Canadian kid
near Niagara Falls, he said, he was “growing up on a steady diet of
science fiction.” Hr read the classic authors, from Ray Bradbury to
Arthur C. Clarke. When Clarke's story became “2001: A Space
Odyssey,” Cameron saw it 10 times.

The next year, his
family moved to California, where Cameron spent his senior year of
high school. He tried junior college, then had a split life – a
blue-collar worker (as a truck driver and maintenance man) who
watched and made movies on the side.

“I just thought
... 'I'm wasting my life. If I've got all of these ideas and all of
these images, I've got to get them out.,'” Cameron said. “So I
quit my job ... and I started making a film.”

It fizzled, but the
resulting short got him a job with Roger Corman, the mini-budget
master.

“You learn how to
do a lot with a little,” Cameron said. For “Battle Beyond the
Stars,” he “populated the walls of a spaceship interior with
McDonald's fold-out Styrofoam breakfast trays.”

The result worked
and Corman assigned Cameron to direct “Piranha Part Two: The
Spawning.”

It was a trap, Marc
Shapiro wrote in “James Cameron” (Renaissance Books, 2000).
Corman didn't realize that the film's producer only wanted an
American director to fulfill a contractual requirement. He fired
Cameron, who then got control in the editing room, with so-so
results. “This is a routine monster film,” a Variety reviewer
wrote, “with an idiotic premise and laughably phony special
effects.”

Soon, however,
Cameron's “Terminator” script was drawing a buzz. He insisted on
directing, with his girlfriend Gale Anne Hurd producing. While
waiting for co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish another film, he
also did drafts of the “Rambo” and “Aliens” scripts.

“Terminator”
cost under $5 million, Cameron said. “Even in 1984, it was not a
lot of money. So we had to shoot kind of guerrilla style .... We'd
drive around town until we found the brightest streetlights.”

The result scored.
Cameron was hired to direct “Aliens,” then went on to “The
Abyss” and “Titanic.”

The latter had a
character with a lot in common with the filmmaker. Like Jack, Cameron
was an artist who had painted his girlfriend (who later became his
first wife) in the nude. Like Jack, he was a blue-collar kid,
intensely pursuing someone (Hurd, who became his second wife) who had
grown up rich.

Unlike Jack, Cameron
survived the Titanic. He's married three more times; he's made “True
Lies,” “Avatar” and lots of sequels, often with an epic feel.

“It's very
possible for spectacle to overwhelm a film,” Spielberg said, but it
can also propel a story. “The question is: Are we letting our
visual imaginations overwhelm our emotional artistic expression?”

It's the sort of
question he can ask during his story of science fiction.

-- “AMC
Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction,” 10 p.m.
Mondays, AMC

-- The opener was
Monday (April 30), but it reruns at 4:40 a.m. Friday (May 4), 3:11
a.m. Saturday, 3:40 a.m. Sunday.

-- The second
episode is 10:05 p.m. May 7, rerunning at 3:50 a.m. Then the first
two rerun at 9 and 10 a.m. May 8.