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August, 2008 : Feature:

Future Tense

To help promote Arisia, a Boston area convention held in January, volunteers have launched "Arisia TV." It's a website where they hope to have lots of SF content that will be of interest to fans and which will, not so incidentally, promote the con. As a long-time participant, I was asked to do a series of brief vignettes on SF films focusing on the theme "The Five Essential Science Fiction Movies." In my introduction to the series, I pointed out that such lists are interesting but are more points for discussion rather than definitive judgments.

Of course I couldn't resist the challenge, and my choices were a mix of the obvious and the quirky. I limited myself to no more than one film per decade so that once I picked "Forbidden Planet," all those other great '50s films were out of the running. Fortunately it's only an exercise—other than comparing notes and, perhaps, seeing films you may have missed, there's really nothing at stake. However, I began to wonder what would have happened if they had made it more difficult by asking me to name five essential SF films prior to 1950. That would be more of a challenge simply because there are few films to choose from in order to come up with five titles that are enduring classics. No "Buck Rogers" or "Flash Gordon" serials for me.

I'd start with the George Melies 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon." It's a film that still delights more than a century later, from the chorus line seeing off the rocket to the Man in the Moon getting it right in the eye. Of course, the most important of all the silent feature-length SF films—not that there are all that many—is Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece "Metropolis," which gives us robots, underground cities, and the mad scientist Rottwang. (At this writing, film buffs are eager to see the uncut version of the film recently discovered in Argentina and not shown publicly in 80 years.) Moving into the sound era the fantasy giant ape movie "King Kong" (1933) may be a stretch as science fiction, but most SF fans have no problem with that, and the original is a film that has to be seen. Of course a slot must be reserved for one of the "Frankenstein" movies with "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) getting the nod (as explained in a previous IROSF essay).

So that leaves the fifth film. The general consensus—with which I agree—is that a contender for any all-time greats of SF film list is "Things to Come" (1936). Yet, of the five, it's the one that seems to be the least known and that's unfortunate. Part of the problem may be, as others have noted, the poor quality of most of the prints available (including transfers of public domain prints to VHS tapes and DVDs). However it may also be due to a certain smugness at its look at the future which is—for most of the film—our past. Perhaps we need to view this as alternate history or, if possible, put aside the actual history of the last seventy years and try to imagine how this looked to viewers in 1936.

The story, based on the book by H. G. Wells, takes place in "Everytown"—although those who insist on seeing it as London will not be too mistaken. It opens at Christmastime in 1940, just a few years in the future. As most people try to stay in the holiday mood there are ominous headlines of imminent war. We know that World War II is just around the corner, but in 1936 that wasn't a certainty, just a foreboding. John Cabal (Raymond Massey) believes it's too late to avoid war and, in the next scenes his worst dreams come true as the enemy bombs start falling.

Future history then veers off from the world we know, as the war continues not for a few years but for a few decades. By the 1960s Everytown is more rubble than city, and the "government" consists of the Boss (Ralph Richardson), a petty tyrant who promises peace while continuing the fight. The "enemy" is no longer a foreign power, but the people in the rubble of the next community. What's fascinating about the sequence is its pre-atomic view of a post-apocalyptic world. There's a struggle with the outbreak of the mysterious "Wandering Sickness," a plague for which there is no cure but death. Finally it subsides and people can start rebuilding. No one is worrying about radiation, yet they are pessimistic about the restoration of civilization. The Boss wants airplanes, but there's no "petrol" for fuel, and young mechanic Richard Gordon (Derek DeMarney) doesn't think the planes they have will ever work. He bleakly tells his girlfriend that humanity will never return to the skies. This is even more frightening than the "Wandering Sickness." It's the notion that society can be so badly damaged in war that we will actually regress to more primitive conditions, unable to repair the destruction.

Of course that's the signal for the arrival of a plane, flown by a much older John Cabal, representative for Wings Over the World. Cabal's arguments with the Boss are fascinating in no small part because we know we're supposed to be on Cabal's side since he represents peace, progress, and technology—but he also represents authoritarian rule, however benign it might be. When the Boss insists on local sovereignty, he's told in no uncertain terms that that will no longer be permitted. Everytown will be brought into this new world order on the terms the airmen dictate, no negotiation. Ultimately Everytown is gassed from above in order to incapacitate the residents. The gas is only supposed to temporarily knock people out but, conveniently, the Boss dies in the attack.

The story jumps forward once more, now to 2036. Cabal's great-grandson Oswald (also Massey) is now a leader of an Eden-like Everytown. Director William Cameron Menzies devotes several shots to how it was constructed and transformed. Civilization has not only come back; it has greatly advanced. For viewers in 1936, this glimpse of a world a hundred years hence must have been truly amazing. Yet all is not well. There is grumbling about plans to send a rocket to the moon. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) goes on worldwide television to rouse the populace against the "space gun" arguing, "What good is all this progress?"

This last part focuses on whether the mob or the scientists will prevail, with the film's conclusion going to Oswald--who would sound almost cold-blooded if we didn't consider him the story's hero. He allows that people will die as mankind moves into space, but what's important is progress and the advancement of knowledge. When his colleague asks when we get to rest and enjoy ourselves, Oswald sardonically notes that rest—the permanent rest of death—comes to all soon enough. In the meantime humanity must always look for new goals: the moon, the planets, the stars. That's the choice, he insists. "All the universe, or nothingness," he says. "Which shall it be?"

This is intelligent SF filmmaking that focuses on ideas as much—if not more—than the special effects. Of course bad movies have been made from H. G. Wells books, but Wells himself is credited with the screenplay adaptation here. The film was produced by Alexander Korda, and some of the top names in the British film industry were part of the production team. It's not without its flaws, from the 19th century feel of some of the speeches (Wells was in his 60s when he wrote the screenplay) as well as the jumps in the plot. Apparently the original premiere length of the film was in the vicinity of two hours, though most current prints are in the 90 minute range. However, what some might see as confusion might be more properly seen as complexity. We may agree with the viewpoint of John Cabal and, later, his great-grandson Oswald, and see their opponents as blowhards and buffoons. Yet the arguments they make do raise questions, and the criticism they receive is not without reason.

"Things to Come" is not some musty relic relying on its past reputation, but an important part of the pantheon of SF cinema. As with any classic or overly literary novel, it may take some time to get in sync with the story, but it is worth the effort. Serious fans should sit down to a showing of "Things to Come" with the same attention with which they consider the issues of "2001," "Blade Runner" or "Gattaca." This isn't cheese. This is filet mignon.


Copyright © 2008, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Aug 6, 04:46 by IROSF
Comments on this article? Post them here!

Article can be found here.
Aug 6, 14:12 by b. lynch black
wow! great article, dan. i am also a big fan of "Things to Come" having seen it on PBS quite a while ago. and, like you, i love the complexity of not liking the "hero"... your essay points out that the same complex issues face us today as our society is divided between those who want to go forward with space exploration and those who feel we need to "take care of things at home."
Aug 6, 14:49 by Nader Elhefnawy
I just saw the film for the first time a few months ago, and must agree: good piece here on a film that deserves more attention, if only because The Shape of Things to Come is such an important work in Wells's canon (and again neglected by most scholars, as I found when working on my dissertation), and its importance to the history of the genre in cinema. As drama it is admittedly problematic, but I thought the 1960s-era section held up surprisingly well on that level, and on a technical level--I remember seeing a small bit of it many years ago and being astonished that a film like this was made back in 1936.
And it really is regrettable that a better, more complete print isn't available.
Aug 6, 17:07 by Nancy Beck
I was reading through your article, getting to the part where you talk about King Kong, etc., thinking: What about Shape of Things to Come? But, of course, that's the one you ultimately talk about, so I was apparently thinking along the same lines.

Unfortunately, I've never seen it, but I have a slew of movie books, and one of those books (I believe it's United Artists) had a decent review of it. (At least I think that's the studio that released it in the U.S., since I think one of the Kordas had a seat on UA's board).

It's a shame so many really good films fall into disrepair (I have a DVD of My Man Godfrey, and the print is awful).

~Nancy
Aug 7, 01:34 by Robert Lee
I dunno, I've seen Things To Come several times over my lifetime as a movie geek, and if I had to say why it's mostly forgotten today, that would involve gainsaying your review, here. It's not a very good movie to begin with, it hasn't held up well, and the "Hats off to technocracy!" message kinda went south for most people after the *real* WWII happened.

If I were going to throw a mostly-forgotten ringer in my top five pre-1950s SF movies, I think I'd have to go with Just Imagine. Not only is it the first SF feature from a Hollywood studio, but it's full of pre-code gay humor and slights against Henry Ford's anti-semitism. *And* it's full of dance numbers...even though they're all kinda crap and have nothing to do with the movie.
Aug 11, 06:55 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Just got back from Denvention (the World Science Fiction Convention) and am catching up. Thanks for those who liked the essay. (And my new book on romantic comedies includes a chapter on "My Man Godfrey," one of my favorites.)

As for the person who prefers "Just Imagine," which I've seen twice, I'll say it's a matter of taste. I find "Just Imagine" a curio that has a few interesting moments but is largely embarrassing to watch today, particularly the supposed comic stylings of the mercifully forgotten "El Brendel."

But opinionated as I am, I believe that anyone who has seen a film is entitled to their own opinion of it. :)
Aug 12, 21:57 by Robert Lee
Like I said, I was picking a largely-forgotten weirdie, and yeah, a lot of JI falls pretty flat.

"And my new book on romantic comedies includes a chapter on "My Man Godfrey," one of my favorites."

I love both versions, although the '36 Powell and Lombard movie is preferable in a pinch. Weirdly enough, I already had I'll Have What She's Having saved in my list of upcoming books to get, and didn't make the connection when I read your piece here. I got my earliest education in movies watching old ones with my mom and sister, and have been left with a great big lifelong love of what are sometimes sniffed at as "chick flicks." How could I not want to read that book?
Aug 13, 01:10 by Jim Belfiore
Thanks, Dan, for agreeing to be a part of (and linking to) Episode I of "Star Critic".

I've been wrapping up editing on some of the other segments, and I have to say, I need to put you on the spot more often. ;-)

Aug 29, 16:08 by Michael Andre-Driussi
I don't think "Things to Come" is a crypto-fascist film, but I sense that Hitler himself must have loved it.

Lately I have been mulling over a comparison of the British "Things to Come" (1936) with the American "Meet John Doe" (1941). The British film seems to say democracy is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the post-apocalyptic world. The American film fears Hitlerism coming in the form of Populism, with secret capitalist backing--this in a country reshaped by FDR for eight years out of an eventual 12 years. The internally directed paranoia is stunning--Trust Government, Question Grass Roots Movements, and Hate the Domestic Enemy. It is like a Red-Scare film, but not directed at communists.

The strange myopia. The British clearly saw the war coming and were right on that, but their fictional solution was disturbingly Hitlerian. The Americans engaged in an exercise in Orwellian thought policing, and yet by year's end they were involved in the real war against Germany and Japan. Bad timing, that.

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