All right, as promised, here is my review of the 1936 H.G. Wells film, Things To Come, which is based on the 1933 novel and screenplay, The Shape of Things To Come. On one hand this movie is laughingly inaccurate and flawed, but on the other hand, it’s very impressive.
The film opens in the berg of Everytown in 1940, where scenes of happy people getting ready for Christmas are juxtaposed with foreboding signs of a coming war. Searchlights scan the skies and doomsday-preaching broadsides loom, but no one seems to care. They’re too busy partying and singing.
Someone who’s not entirely into the festivities is John Cabal (Raymond Massey) who warily views the daily news. He and his friend, Dr. Harding (Maurice Braddell) are hugely concerned, the latter because he wonders what war will do to his research. Another friend, Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman) is optimistic, because after all, it is Christmas, and he charms John and Dr. Harding into singing a few lines from a Christmas carol with him.
War is declared on Christmas Day and what follows looks like what Britain actually went through during the war. Men are conscripted for combat, sandbags are everywhere, air raid wardens patrol the streets at night. Gas masks are handed out, although during the real war they were handed out less frantically and farther in advance, and people are told to go home before bombs fall. When Everytown is attacked, the devastation is huge, with children buried under rubble and dead men in evening dress hanging out of truck cabs.
John joins the air force and reassures his wife that their children are a link to the future. He then disappears from the movie, at least temporarily, after a friend of his shoots himself before his wounds and a round of poisonous gas can kill him.
The war drags on until 1966, when things finally seem to peter out. Everytown is in shambles, with people living primitively in the rubble and cooking over open fires. Then some unseen pestilence wipes out even more of the population. It’s so bad that doctors run out of medicine and patients who stagger out of the hospital are shot so they don’t spread the disease further.
Things keep dragging on until 1970, when the sickness finally dissipates and people talk about resuming the war (After thirty years? Are they kidding?). However, since research has basically stopped and no materials are being produced planes can’t fly anymore. This is by design. Everytown is controlled by a tyrant called The Boss (Ralph Richardson) who hates technology and science of all kinds. He wants his soldiers to defend Everytown, but he doesn’t want to equip them to do it, so things are kind of at a standstill.
One day a bright, shiny spaceship flies into Everytown and out pops John, who is now white-haired and prosperous. He lives south of Everytown in a super-futuristic city and can help Everytown get their planes flying again. Naturally, he reunites with Dr. Harding, who has been gamely keeping on with his research even though resources are nonexistent. John also makes friends with pilot Richard Gordon (Derrick de Marney), who tells him in whispers what The Boss is up to.
The Boss, meanwhile, imprisons John because he’s deathly afraid of his ideas. If not for John’s friends from his new city coming to rescue him, he might have had him executed. Instead, the Boss dies unceremoniously from what John’s friends call the “Gas of Peace” while almost everyone else comes out unscathed. It’s only meant to put people to sleep, after all, not kill them.
By 2036 everyone is living underground, including the residents of Everytown, and everything seems perfect. The offspring of our main characters are thriving and a little girl gets a nice blast from the past when she asks her grandpa about John Cabal. Yet it’s not actually perfect. Not everyone likes humanity’s advancement and certain people want to stop it. Who will win is the big question, but it’s not a deep one, seeing as the movie portrays Luddites as somewhat sinister individuals.
Things To Come starts out strongly enough. It does a good job of showing the devastation of war and nails Britain’s experience in the Second World War, which was only three years away at the time of the film’s release. It doesn’t show blackouts, which were hugely important to the Brits. It also misses the then-new war’s emphasis on superior machines and instead shows men dogfighting in biplanes and going over the top in trench warfare. Naturally, no one could have predicted what the Second World War would be like that early on, but when Wells’ novel was published in 1933, people, Charles De Gaulle, for one, were already calling for the modernization of the armed forces.
The film seemed to save all of its budget for its third act, which looks very impressive and very Deco. This is not the “used future” of Blade Runner or Star Wars, but a clean, streamlined existence that looks on everything old-fashioned with reverent curiosity. Anyone who has lived in a house with windows, for instance, is regarded as a little backwards but redeemable. They just don’t know any better.
Things makes frequent use of giant video screens for transmitting messages to the populace and flat-screen TVs with tons of archival footage at the ready. It’s remarkably prescient, because some of the devices look eerily like iPads or Microsoft Surface Pro 8s, and the idea of the average person broadcasting their ideas to the public at large in an instant seems akin to social media and YouTube. The movie also correctly asserts that whoever controls technology controls the world.
What’s pretty hilarious is the absolute lack of progression in other ways. Hairstyles, clothes and music don’t progress one iota throughout the decades before John Cabal comes back, and while this might be chalked up to the war putting the kibosh on fashion, one would think something trendy would emerge somewhere. Heh. Nope. It’s not until everyone’s living in underground cities that anything changes, but even then it doesn’t look like 1970 in the slightest.
Granted, this is 2022 talking; 1936 audiences wouldn’t have looked for the sideburns and psychedelic colors that populated the real nineteen-sixties and seventies. They certainly wouldn’t have foreseen disco or punk.
It’s also hilarious that the last act of the film is built around a space gun designed to shoot rockets to the moon. Hmmm. Georges Méliès was still alive in 1936, so I have to wonder what he thought of this bit, considering how familiar it all is.
Other than that, the movie’s pacing can be clunky. Sometimes the passage of time, particularly in the third act, is inapparent, because the look of the film is very uniform. There’s nothing to indicate that a hundred years have passed at the end of the movie; it really looks as if this futuristic society exists alongside Everytown’s devastation.
This might be due to the large number of cuts and prints of various qualities floating around, most of which vary in length, and not all of them are available everywhere due to copyright laws. The snips are minor enough that the story isn’t harmed much, but they still might be a little disorienting.
Also, the film is in public domain, which means it likely hasn’t been curated very well. Things To Come bombed at the box office and no one cared about it once it left theaters, so keeping the movie intact was probably not a high priority, especially after the Second World War, when it would have already been incredibly dated.
Things To Come is interesting despite its fumbles. It’s fun when films try to predict the future, even if they get it wrong.
Here’s what’s coming up in April (tomorrow!). Click the images for more info:
All right, the Doris Day Blogathon is on the morrow. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
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