‘James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction’ Takes a Loving Look at the Enduring Genre

James Cameron loves science fiction, having directed the genre favorites “Aliens,” “Avatar,” The Terminator,” and “The Abyss.” So does Steven Spielberg. He’s been softening mankind up for an alien invasion for years with perennial visions of personal pleas for interstellar understanding like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET: The Extraterrestrial.” In “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” the two starship troopers, as well as helmsmen like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and Guillermo Del Toro, look to the stars that guided them to set course of the science fiction genre.

The six-episode exploration traces the best of the genre to H.G. Wells’ seminal alien invasion novel “The War of the Worlds.” The book, along those by of Wells’ contemporary Jules Verne, brought Science Fiction into the mainstream. The documentary incorporates a vintage interview with Orson Welles, the future director of “Citizen Kane” who started one of the first mass panics, to explain the genre’s continually growing popularity.

Science fiction was considered B-movie fare for much of its growth period. Films like “The Thing,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and the paranoid fantasia “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” all of which went on to be remade into blockbuster summer movies, saw them mature. The open-ended land- and star-scapes lent themselves palettes so vast they could take on the nuclear nightmares, political intrigues and social dramas of every successive generation.

The filmmakers and actors give their nods to influential episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” which reminded mankind to read the fine print when aliens come bearing fattening gifts. They point to the genre as fertile ground for fresh ideas, like the gender and racial equality the TV series “Star Trek” brought into mass consciousness during the supposedly turbulent 1960s. They delve into the social implications of artificial intelligence, from HAL through R2D2 to the upcoming robotics finding its way into contemporary homes.

Universal stories are ultimately personal tales. The artists give varied testimony on what science fiction means to them. Spielberg drew on extraterrestrial visitors to come to terms with the alienation he felt over the divorce of his parents for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Will Smith wanted to attach a regular guy face to the fists that were beating on uninvited marauders from beyond Mars for “Independence Day.” Arnold Schwarzenegger breaks down the big picture, while Keanu Reeves and Sigourney Weaver philosophize on how the distance of space brings humanity closer together. “Arrival” screenwriter Eric Heisserer felt the need to translate Ted Chiang’s book into easily recognizable symbols and begin a dialogue.

Each episode covers one subject: “Alien Life,” “Space Exploration,” “Monsters,” “Dark Futures,” “Intelligent Machines,” and “Time Travel.” All of the topics contain tales of dread and wonder. What we see in the Aliens is what we see in ourselves, the dark and light, our animal nature and our human nature. Just as the genre itself has room for films of the caliber of Ed Woods’ unforgettable “worst film ever” “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” to Stanley Kubrick’s meditational masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which “Star Wars” creator George Lucas calls “the best science fiction film ever made.”

The dedicated science fiction tellers assembled by Cameron share a utopian vision of expression built on many dystopian visuals of oppression. “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s The Story Of Science Fiction” merges the supernovas with the black holes to find the warmth in the icy cold of space.

AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” premieres Monday, April 30 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.