H.G. Wells’ Things to Come is one of the more interesting early entries in the history of science fiction movies. Unlike films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Wells believed that man could achieve Utopia and not the horrible dystopia or post-apocalyptic world’s we still get in today’s sci-fi movies. H.G. Wells was a socialist who believed strongly in a one world government and an abolition of religion as independent nations and religions are responsible for most the world’s strife. Not an easy statement to argue with. He argued with Stalin that his revolution was a good starting point but he was going about it all wrong by putting the factory workers and farmers in charge, if you want to create perfect society scientists and men of learning should govern. Talks broke down after that.
Teaming up with Alexander Korda and based on is book “The Shape of Things to Come” H.G. Wells was given almost unprecedented creative control over the project. Director William Cameron Menzies was not allowed to deviate from Wells’ screenplay, also Wells had veto power on casting and he even hired composer Arthur Bliss to score the film before even one frame of had been shot. Wells was not so much worried about making a profitable movie but more on it being a perfect translation of his prophetic writings. This was not really an ego thing either as he truly believed that if society could see what was possible then maybe it could eventually come to be. This from a man staring out at a world readying itself for World War II.
The movie begins in the near future of 1940 on Christmas Day located in the fictional British city of “Everytown.” The streets are full of people panicking at the thought of a possible upcoming war, some such as John Cabal (Raymond Massey) greatly worried while other says that even if there were to be a war it will only provide technological advancements.
Note: H.G. Wells was firmly against the belief that anything good could come of war, so in this film such thoughts are mocked and are one of the bigger misses in his predictions of the future.
War does break out and Everytown is reduced to horrifying hellscape of death and destruction. Something the real British subjects watching this film at the time of its release would become accustomed to rather shortly (Wells prediction for the start of the next World War was only off by sixteen months). Later we find Cabal flying the not so friendly skies as he dogfights with an enemy bomber (John Clements), he shoots the man down but then lands to give the dying man comfort. As poisonous gas, presumably dropped by the dying bomber approaches, a little comes running and coughing before the deadly fog. The injured man saying he is dying anyway gives gasmask to the girl and urges Cabal to take the girl and go. Cabal does but not before giving the man his service revolver so he can end his life before the gas does.
The war rages on for decades until the 1960s more resemble the Dark Ages than anything else. Manufacturing has ceased and people live squalid conditions as technology is almost non-existent. Biological weapons have also created a plague called “The Wandering Sickness” that has wiped out half of the world’s population.
This leads to the films second act as we return to Everytown, though still in ruins is now being ruled by “The Boss” (Ralph Richardson) a Mussoliniesque dictator that demands of his subjects more effort in wiping out the “enemies in the hills.” (The enemy or causes of the war are never name checked in this movie but are more of a shadowy force that threatens the world order.) The Boss wants airplanes but his chief mechanic Gordon (Derrick De Marney) tries to explain to him that even if he can fix the planes they have there is not petrol to fuel them. Also on the agenda is getting local scientist Dr. Harding (Maurice Braddell) to develop poisonous gas, but Harding and his daughter refuse to aid in the deaths of even more people. Then out of the blue a strange plane appears and lands at the outskirts of Everytown, John Cabal is back!
The Boss has Cabal arrested and demands that he aid him in his war effort, but Cabal will have none of this as he is part of “Wings Over the World” a society founded by scientists and engineers whose goal is to wipe out independent nations and thus end war forever.
Cabal is forced to work with Gordon and Harding in the repairing of Newtown’s decrepit air force, but it is all a ruse on Gordon’s part as once the plane is fixed he flies of to Basra, Iraq to notify Cabal’s people of their leader’s capture.
Wings Over the World attack Newtown via a squadron of massive futuristic flying aircraft and proceed to drop so called “Peace Bombs” on the populace. The bombs contain a harmless knock out gas so once Cabal is rescued the town wakes up to find themselves in the hands of new rulers. Rulers for science!
We are then treated to a montage of the science leaping forward through time, making a better world for everyone. For undisclosed reasons Wings Over the World decided that underground cities is the way to go opposed to futuristic skyscrapers, and we see cool drilling machines carve into the hillsides as an innovative society is created and a technocracy is born.
No time is spent showing how awesome this society has become as almost the second we see the new and improved Everytown we are introduced to the sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) as he is bitching about how science is progressing too far, that mankind should sit back and smell the roses for a bit. He also strongly believes that this latest idea of sending people to the moon via a Space Gun is terrible.
Okay, the artist has a point here as this is a terrible idea though not on any philosophical basis but by the fact that a capsule fired out of a giant gun would turn its occupants into the consistency of grape jelly. For some reason both Wells and Verne were hung up on Space Gun technology versus rocket powered spacecraft. Thematically it doesn’t even work as a gun being used for the benefit of exploration is showing something of war furthering the advancement of science; this stands in the face Wells’ stated viewpoints on the benefits of war. That being there are none.
Theotocopulos, via Jumbotron, rallies the populace against Oswald Cabal (Massey again) who is their current leader and great grandson of the original founder of Wings Over the World. So apparently Wells has created a Science Monarchy where one family of scientist will rule in perpetuity. Not sure he thought that one through.
The mob storm the Space Gun but Oswald, his daughter and her boyfriend, who both volunteered for this space mission, beat the rioting Luddites to the platform and are fired into space. Cabal and the father of the boyfriend stand together as their children venture off into the future.
Cabal then gives a long speech about how man cannot stop advancing. “For man there is no rest and no ending. He must go on…conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time—still he will be beginning. If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more…than all the other animals do…or have done. It is that…or this? All the universe—or nothingness. . . . Which shall it be?”
That’s pretty fine speechifying there Cabal and kind of sums up the problem with the film, it is very, very preachy. It is so full of grand and important ideas that it doesn’t seem to want to get bogged down with things like a plot or characters. Wells and Korda had gathered together an excellent cast of actors but then gave them a pretty hammy script and put them in the hands of a director who found actors to be much less interesting then shot composition or lighting.
That said this is still a film worth checking out as it is visually stunning and creepily prophetic at times. Wells and company put together a fascinating “What if?” utopia based on some startling political viewpoints and has earned a good spot in the history of science fiction movies.
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.