Skiffy Flix: Things to Come

This is an ambitious film from 1936, based on a treatment by H.G. Wells depicting future history from 1950 to 2036. Again, Wikipedia has a fairly detailed plot at

I’ve read that for decades after, Things to Come was considered the most serious, big-ideas science fiction film of all time. (Until 2001, maybe.) It has some striking ideas and images, but it hasn’t aged well.

This film breaks into roughly three parts.

  • In 1940, war breaks out. We witness events from a generic city called “Everytown,” beginning as the main character, the forceful John Cabal (played by Raymond Massey), and his friends discuss the inevitability of war and its impact on technological progress. Then sirens sound and the war begins; we see the center of town as people run, cars crash, aircraft attack, tanks roll through the central square. Bombastic music. Buildings collapse, burn. Then shots of ships at sea, futuristic tanks, planes over the coast. Title cards display the years as war goes on… 1945, 1960. Finally it’s over in 1966, but then a pestilence spreads; no one who catches it survives.
  • Everytown is now ruins, occupied by poor villages. The town is now run by a warlord, who wears furs and has a chatty wife. Despite common thought that technology is over, one day a plane flies over and lands nearby. Its pilot is John Cabal, wearing an oddly huge helmet, and he explains that the engineers and mechanics of the Mediterranean area have united into an organization called “wings over the world,” and are rebuilding civilization. The warlord arrests Cabal and tosses him in a dungeon. Sample lines from the warlord: “Who wants books that muddle our thoughts anymore?” and “Why was all this science ever allowed? What was it ever let begin, science? The enemy of everything that is natural in life.” But huge flying-wing airplanes appear in the sky and overwhelm the warlord’s ancient planes, then drop sleeping gas over the villagers. Cabal remarks, about the warlord, “Dead and his world dead with him…” “Now for the rules of the airmen, and a new life for mankind.”
  • Then there’s a transitional montage of the rebuilding of society, via huge technology. Mountains are blown up; enormous machines grind away; men pass through factories on gliding platforms. More music.
  • Then we see the result, in 2036: the area where Everytown lay is now grassland and low hills, while the city has been rebuilt inside a huge nearby cave! It’s an enormous spacious well-lit cavern, rather like the interior of a huge shopping mall or Las Vegas hotel, where all the residents wear white robes with enormous shoulder pads. The story immediately becomes one about progress, as an artist (played by Cedric Hardwicke) wants to rebel, to stop progress before it’s too late! The head of the ruling council, Oswald Cabal (again played by Raymond Massey), plans to launch the first mission to the moon via an enormous “space gun.” After some debate about who to send, the space gun is prepared, and launches despite converging mobs. Looking into the starry sky, Cabal speechifies about progress and knowledge, concluding with “All the universe or nothing? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be? ..”

The film is an admirable attempt to imagine a disastrous, and then expansive future; it recalls a quote from Wells: “Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.” Comments:

  • The acting style is broad and the music, by Arthur Bliss, bombastic and grating. The music was popular at the time and released separately on recordings, but you don’t hear it much anymore, all these decades later.
  • The film equates progress with enormous technology, which was appropriate for a time when Empire State Buildings and Hoover Dams were being built, but isn’t so true anymore.
  • I don’t find the idea of building utopia, so to speak, in an underground cavern, plausible, and wonder it was thought so. (Somewhat similarly, in the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s there were science fiction stories and movies about building cities under the sea, another idea that’s rather faded away.)
  • On the other hand, the production design is striking, especially of the underground Everytown. This is another case where a feature on the DVD, about Vincent Korda and others, is as interesting as the film itself.
  • There are some cute scenes in the final section with a little girl and her grandfather, reclining on glass furniture and watching a big screen showing Manhattan as it used to be, as grandpa explains about the age of windows, when they were diseased and had colds, not like today.
  • One of the DVD features points out that the “space gun” is implausible—its passengers would quickly turn to raspberry jam—but Wells, who had considerable influence and involvement with the making of the film, wanted the resemblance of the vehicle to go to the moon with the cannons fired earlier when war broke out.
  • The debate in the final sequence is rather insipid; what is the artist complaining about, exactly? Religious opposite would have been more plausible (as was a theme in written SF of the ‘40s and ‘50s), but there’s no mention of religion here. At the same time, the contrast from the middle section of the film, of barbarity, to the final section, of gleaming building and expansion into space, is sharp, and moving.

I grant that standards and styles have changed over time, which accounts for much of my reaction. And I’m aware that similar stylistic complaints would be made about 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially about its slow pacing compared to virtually all modern cinema. So I’ll grant Things to Come its status and try to understand it in its context.

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