Things to Come (1936)

February 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Based on the H.G. Wells novel The Shape of Things to Come, and with a screenplay by Wells (though apparently not much involvement beyond that) this is an interesting, if remarkably dated film. Released in 1936, it portrays an England going to war around Christmas 1940 which was not far off, as it turned out, and it’s the first of three stages of a potential future the film presents. This first stage is remarkably anti-war, something I suspect wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later and into wartime. Characters make exasperated statements about the waste of it all, and in a long montage of barbed wire and bombs going off, the war is portrayed as lasting for decades and pummeling society back to the dark ages, so that people are reduced to living in rubble, trying to avoid disease, and pulling cars around with teams of horses. John Cabal (played by Toronto born Raymond Massey) is introduced, fights in the war and then disappears from the film for a while.

The second stage of the film has “social vitality” finally beginning to return around 1970, but society has become fragmented, and different warlords claim different parts of the country. The “Chief” of one particular region gets a visit from a grey-haired John Cabal in a nifty flying vehicle (and he wears a helmet the size of a small fridge) so Cabal can explain he’s part of a larger government restoring order and trade, and wiping out tinpot dictators and fragments of England that claim to be independent sovereign states. Of course, the tinpot dictator throws him in jail, and the second part of the film portrays the struggle to overcome the Chief, ultimately fairly easy once some giant warplanes are established, and knockout gas is used. It’s here that casting hurts the film quite a bit, because while Massey is okay if somewhat bland, the Chief is really a tremendous dork in a fur coat that wouldn’t be elected the head of a social club, never mind a chunk of England.

Another montage then takes us to 2036, a hundred years after the film was produced, and while I suspect this is meant to be a progressive montage to balance the war montage, it’s basically dislocated shots of people standing next to huge vats of goo, and massive drills reshaping the landscape (look at us, we can kick the crap out of mountains!) before finally the whole world is made up of clean, white cities with tremendous blank walls and everyone wears dresses. Er, great. I know filmmakers search for something different when portraying the future, but have a hard time understanding why it frequently needs to be either as clean as this, or as cluttered as Blade Runner (1980), except to say we seem to have trouble imagining the kind of compromise life usually becomes.

While the film is visually impressive, with some great model work for the time, the three segments are progressively blander, with the conflict in the final segment reduced to the descendant of John Cabal (again played by Massey) trying to protect his space program from a mob that appears to be motivated by some other prominent citizen, and the lamest speech ever (“We must stop this progress!”). All through the film, characters don’t speak as much as make pronouncements, making the film feel more like an essay brought to life than a drama.There’s only one moment in the first segment, when we see the body of a child in the rubble, that the film makes a powerful visual statement that isn’t someone telling us what to believe. And of course, enough time has gone by that we know none of these things are quite happening — we can only note the general lesson: that no matter what age it is, progress will be a struggle, and some people will fervently believe in doing absolutely the wrong thing.

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