in Criterion Month

Things To Come (1936)

I was not expecting a science fiction movie from the 30s to be at all relatable, but after living through the most apocalyptic year and a half I can remember, that wasn’t the case. While Things To Come deals mostly with the very 20th century threat of constant war, it also manages to pack in a section where humanity is burdened by “the wandering sickness”, which uh, may sound a little familiar. Maybe it’s not so brilliant that a science fiction film would include a deadly virus since they have plagued civilizations for centuries. But it does add another layer of thoughtfulness when the film already does a harrowing job of predicting that a widespread war could have devastating effects on the world just a few years prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Things To Come opens on Everytown, a bustling metropolis that feels like a stand-in for London, but cleaner and with more neon lights. The year is 1940 and the day is December 25, though people of the city are having a hard time enjoying their Christmas due to the threat of a nebulous unspecified war. A businessman named John Cabal (played by Raymond Massey) has gathered with a few friends at his home, and they ponder whether war will happen and how it could mobilize advances in technology. The city is then enveloped in an areal bombing and we see the various immaculate buildings throughout Everytown destroyed one by one, while an army plows ahead to fight off the invading forces in a cloud of mutually assured destruction. The film then transitions to montage as we see this war dragging on and on through the 50s and 60s until we get to 1970 and Everytown (as well as the world) has been reduced to rubble.

During this period, we see people just barely able to survive while also not succumbing to the aforementioned wandering sickness. While a cure for the sickness is attempted to be developed, this is untenable due to the dire state of this world ravaged by war, and so half the population ends up dying of the disease. Additionally, Everytown is controlled by a warlord known as “the Boss” who has conquered the disease by merely shooting anyone who has been infected by it. One day, a sleek, somewhat futuristic-looking airplane lands in everytown and John Cabal emerges, now older and sporting a black spandex suit and a comically large astronaut helmet. He is part of an organization called Wings Over The World, who seek to end all wars while flying to different parts of the globe in the hopes of rebuilding different cities and countries.

Cabal offers the Boss the opportunity to join them, but he refuses and takes Cabal hostage, forcing him to work on his own fleet of planes. However, Cabal is eventually rescued by his fellow airmen, who drop tons of sleeping gas over the city, though the Boss has an allergic reaction to the gas and dies. The city is then taken over by Wings Over the World and their larger federation, known as World Communications. We then get another time jump montage, as we see the rebuilding of society to new technological heights before landing on 2036, where people are living in pristine underground societies, rife with tube technology and the oncoming anticipation of space travel. However, there is some disagreement in this futuristic Everytown whether all of this progress is necessary, or whether using the “space gun” they’ve constructed to shoot people into space has gone too far.

As you can tell, the film has a bit of a dilemma by moving through such a vast period of time. It’s especially tricky when you don’t have a character who’s able to live through all of these time periods due to some sci-fi narrative device (I’m thinking of another H.G. Wells story The Time Machine, or a classic on par with Wells, Bicentennial Man). Things To Come doesn’t seem that interested in sticking too closely to any one character’s story though. Sure, there are a few memorable characters throughout (most notably John Cabal), but it feels like the main character of this movie is “man”. Most movies would not be able to get away with this, but fortunately, Things To Come takes such an ambitious approach in depicting man’s follies and is filled with so many ideas about science and progress that it’s all pretty fascinating to watch.

Obviously, the film’s ideas about a widespread war feel the most eerily prophetic, though I’m sure H.G. Wells (who adapted the film’s screenplay from his novel) saw the writing on the wall that World War I had happened, and an even more devastating version was possible. This makes the film’s first half-hour its most riveting section, just for the mere fact that it feels all too real to see people of this era in what is essentially London being bombed to bits. Also, the film is shot in a really arresting way, using prop explosions that still look good, while the set construction of this artificial city is also immaculate. Additionally, from a filmmaking perspective, Things To Come just looks a lot more dynamic than most 30s movies, possibly because it was more concerned with its visuals than with capturing its actors’ dialogue.

Another thing that’s fun to think about while watching Things To Come is what it gets right and what it gets wrong about the future. The movie has pretty much always existed as a kind of “alternate timeline” of the 20th century, as even though we did see a catastrophic war in the 1940s, our world wasn’t some ravaged wasteland in the 60s and 70s. Still, it does get right that World War II would be defined by air warfare, and it’s not wrong that the 20th century would be very defined by war (just not on as massive a scale). Also, one of the few reasons to feel pumped about humanity while watching this movie is knowing that we beat H.G. Wells’ prediction for space travel by about 70 years. It’s a little silly in hindsight to think that we would use a giant gun (it literal consists of a giant pistol barrel) to shoot people into space, but it still feels consistent with the film’s message that all humans really want to do is shoot a god damn gun.

It’s unsurprising that Things To Come looks so impressive visually since it was directed by William Cameron Menzies, one of Hollywood’s most influential production designers. His most widely seen achievement as a production designer is likely Gone With The Wind, though he worked on tons of films throughout Hollywood’s coming-of-age years and is even thought to have coined the term “production designer”. Things To Come would not be his last collaboration with producer Alexander Korda, who would also go on to produce past Criterion pick The Thief of Bagdad. Menzies was clearly influenced by German expressionism, as the hard lines and dark contrast of that movement are baked into not only Things To Come’s vision of the future but also its fictional present. So with Menzies visual prowess, Korda’s flair for the fantastical, and H.G. Wells’ ruminations on the future, you have this great intersection of visionaries who loved to ask “what if” and a film that now begs us to ask “what if the 20th century turned out much differently?”