Avatar director Cameron traces roots of sci-fi movie explosion

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DIRECTOR James Cameron is interviewed in Manhattan Beach, California on April 8, 2014. — REUTERS

LOS ANGELES — Avatar director James Cameron’s latest project takes audiences back to the humble beginnings of science fiction movies, long before films like Star Wars sold billions of dollars worth of tickets and dominated popular culture.

In a six-part documentary series that debuts on US cable network AMC on Monday, Cameron explores the B-movies of the 1950s, space and alien films of the 1960s, and post-apocalyptic thrillers of the 1970s.

While many are now considered classics, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968, Cameron said Hollywood executives at the time showed little interest in a genre that rarely yielded big box office returns.

“Nobody had ever made any damn money with science fiction,” Cameron told reporters at the Manhattan Beach, California, studio where he is in the middle of making two Avatar sequels.

Everything changed with 1977’s Star Wars, which became the highest-grossing domestic film in history at the time and sent film studios scrambling to imitate it.

“You had a lot of bad science fiction for a while, all trying to cash in on Star Wars,” Cameron said. “Then the whole genre elevated and became much more what it is today, which is much more a part of the mainstream culture.”

Today, movies grounded in science fiction are among the biggest draws at box offices. Cameron’s Avatar holds the current record for ticket sales with $2.8 billion worldwide.

Last weekend’s Avengers: Infinity War, from Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios, was expected to rank among the top US and Canadian openings of all time. (See story here.)

In the series called AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, Cameron interviews fellow directors Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Christopher Nolan about filmmaking and their influences.

Cameron traded notes with the directors on their favorite sci-fi literature from as far back as the 1930s, something he wanted to highlight as a key part of the genre’s origins.

“What was important to me for this series was to trace back the DNA of these stories,” Cameron said. “So if you’ve got a time travel story, where did that come from? If you’ve got a space story, how did that enter our popular culture? Why did science fiction as a genre struggle to try and popularize these ideas?”

Cameron argued that science fiction is now more relevant than ever as humans become more dependent on machines.

“We are co-evolving with our own technology,” Cameron said.

“Science fiction is kind of our headlights. It helps us see what’s down the road.” — Reuters