Things To Come, made in 1936, was one of the most ambitious productions of the British film industry of the 1930s, and the most spectacular science fiction movie made in Britain until Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 30 years later.
With a screenplay by H. G. Wells, based on his novel The Shape of Things To Come, this is science fiction about ideas. Not always sensible ideas, but ideas nonetheless.
The movie deals with a century of future history. It begins with a war that breaks out in the late 1930s. The war drags on for decades. By the 1960s the world has broken up into countless petty states run by local warlords. Science and technology have come to a standstill, and existing technology is slowly decaying. The warlord of Everytown (known simply as the Boss and played by Ralph Richardson) thinks he’s pretty formidable because he has an air force. In fact he has a couple of dozen 30-year-old biplanes, none of them airworthy. And there’s no fuel to make them fly anyway. But his prestige still rests on the fact that he has an air force.
The world has been ravaged by plague as well as by war. The plague has ended but civilisation remains in ruins. Then in 1970 something extraordinary is spotted in the skies over Everytown. An aircraft. An aircraft actually flying. A sleek modern aircraft, obviously not a relic from the past. The pilot, John Cabal (Raymond Massey) informs the warlord that he represents Wings Over the World, an organisation of scientists which now runs the world. There is a new world order, and all petty states are being brought under the control of this new world government. Resistance is futile.
Of course the Boss does try to resist, but he is powerless against the Gas of Peace that puts everyone to sleep while the scientist rulers move in and take over.
We now cut to the year 2036. The scientists still control the world, and are about to undertake the conquest of space. They have built a gigantic space gun that will launch a manned projectile to the Moon. This is the brainchild of Oswald Cabal, grandson of John Cabal. But there is opposition. There is an anti-progress movement that believes that technology has advanced far enough and that a halt must be called. The mob is incited to storm the launching facility to destroy the space gun but they may be too late. The space gun is already primed to launch its two astronauts to the Moon.
The technocratic socialist world government is the sort of thing that appealed to idealists like Wells in the 30s although today many viewers may well see it as sinister and unworkable rather than utopian. The scientist-run state may be portrayed as basically benign but it’s hard to see it as anything other than a totalitarian state.
More interesting is the clash between the prophets of progress and the anti-progress forces, a conflict that shows that Wells could be remarkably prescient at times.
The movie steers clear of some of the more controversial elements in Wells’ thought that were reflected in his novel, such as his belief that human progress required the total abolition of religion. In common with so many social visionaries Wells tended to regard human nature as a minor detail that could be simply ignored. The movie does make it clear that all the peoples of the world joyously embraced the rule of the wise scientists, which certainly indicates a staggering lack of understanding of what makes humanity tick.
Whatever the movie’s weaknesses in the realm of ideas, visually it is extraordinarily impressive and was immensely influential. Director William Cameron Menzies was also a noted production designer and art director and although he’s not credited as such on this one he would certainly have had a major influence on the look of the film. The sets and costumes are superb and the miniatures work is magnificent. The blending of futuristic styling with costumes based on the ancient world was still being copied decades later in TV series like Doctor Who and Star Trek.
This movie’s influence can be seen in some other rather more unlikely places. The atmosphere of the warlord’s petty kingdom in Things To Come is remarkably similar to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of George Miller’s Mad Max II: the Road Warrior. Given the number of times that Things To Come has been screened in Australian television over the years I’m inclined to think that’s no accident. Even the warlord’s glamorous girlfriend with her barbarian queen look would not have been out of place in most 1980s post-apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers.
There’s not a lot of characterisation so there’s not much of a challenge for the actors, although that doesn’t stop Ralph Richardson who is in full flight as the seedy, cowardly, bullying warlord.
This is a movie that occupies a central position in the history of cinematic science fiction and is really one that must be seen.