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, stating that religions were 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 not the unwashed masses. Talks broke down after that.
Teaming up with Alexander Korda, and based on his 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 film had been shot. Wells was not so much worried about making a profitable movie as he was and creating 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) are greatly worried, while other believe 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, and this was something the real British subjects watching this film would become accustomed to rather shortly as 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 approaches, presumably dropped by the dying bomber, he comes running and coughing before the deadly fog. The injured man saying he is dying anyway gives his gas mask 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, and manufacturing has completely ceased, while 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 it 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 no 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, for the moment plane, is fixed he flies off to Basra, Iraq to notify Cabal’s people of their leader’s capture.
Wings Over the World attacks Newtown, via a squadron of massive futuristic flying aircraft, and they proceed to drop so-called “Peace Bombs” on the populace. The bombs contain a harmless knock-out gas so once Cabal has rescued the town wakes up to find itself 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, and for undisclosed reasons Wings Over the World had decided that underground cities was 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 new technocracy is born.
No time is spent showing how awesome this society would become, as almost the second we see the new and improved Everytown we are introduced to the sculptor, an autocratic man named Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), who 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 a terrible one.
Okay, the asshole sculptor has a point here, as this is truly 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 that is being used for the benefit of exploration, as it is showing something of war furthering the advancement of science, and this stands in the face of Wells’ stated viewpoints on the benefits of war, being that 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 scientists will rule in perpetuity. Not sure he thought that one through.
The mob storm the Space Gun – as mobs are want to do – 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, and thus 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 mankind 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, and Massey is particularly great in this film, but then gave the cast a pretty hammy script and put them in the hands of a director who found actors to be much less interesting than shot composition or lighting.
That said this is still a film worth checking out, as it is visually stunning and creepily prophetic at times, and through it, Wells and company put together a fascinating “What if?” utopia based on some startling political viewpoints and has earned this film a good spot in the history of science fiction movies.
Things to Come
As an earlier entry into the genre of science fiction movies this is a must see, you just have to get past some of the heavy handed symbolism and preachy dialog that was the meat and potatoes of much of H.G. Wells prophetic writings.