by Mel Valentin
Best known for writing genre-defining science fiction novels and novellas ("The War of the Worlds," "The Time Machine," "The Invisible Man"), H.G. Wells was also an essayist and social activist. His novel-essay, "The Shape of Things to Come" predicted a world torn apart by war, famine, and plague, but where instincts and social conditioning failed the human species, science, rationality, and the Enlightenment ideal of progress, moral, ethical, cultural, and economic, held out hope for a better world. Seeing remunerative possibilities in Wells’ tract, producer Alexander Korda ("Anna Karenina," "To Be or Not to Be," "The Thief of Baghdad," "The Four Feathers," "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "The Rise of Catherine the Great," "The Private Life of Henry VIII") hired Wells to write the screenplay and production designer William Cameron Menzies ("Invaders from Mars") to direct.Wells divided Things to Come into three sections. In the first section, set in 1940 during Christmastime, Everytown (a thinly veiled London), prepares for war against an unnamed European country. While pacifist and scientist John Cabal (Raymond Massey) warns that war is imminent, one of his closest friends, Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman), chides him for his pessimism. Passworthy’s optimism proves incorrect, however, as the unnamed country attacks Everytown using bombers and fighter aircraft. War between the countries expands to each country’s respective allies, plunging Europe into another world war (note that Things to Come was made four years before Nazi Germany invaded Poland). But the war lasts not just years, but decades, leaving Europe and, presumably, the world completely devastated. A new plague, the Wandering Sickness, further thins an already diminished population.
"Thankfully, this is one future that won't come true."
In the second section, a warlord, Rudolph/the Chief/the Boss (Ralph Richardson), controls the remnants of Everytown through a mix of threats, violence, and a perpetual war against the so-called “Hill People.” With heavy industry at a standstill, the Boss’ territorial ambitions are limited by what his chief mechanic, Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney), can provide. Using spare parts and ingenuity, Gordon has cobbled together a handful of antiquated biplanes, but without oil, the planes are grounded. One day, however, Gordon and the others spot a sleek, modern airplane. The pilot, none other than John Cabal, promises the citizens of Everytown peace and prosperity, but only if they agree to be ruled by Wings Over the World (WotW). WotW operates from Basra, Iraq as a rational, science-based city-state. The Boss, of course, objects and, after a brief imprisonment, his compatriots free Cabal, dropping the “Gas of Peace” on Everytown.
In the third section, this time set decades later in 2036, Cabal’s descendent, Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), rules benevolently as part of council over a reconstructed Everytown dominated by gleaming, white buildings and a video screen in every home or council chamber. Like his ancestor, Cabal believes in science and scientific progress with an almost religious zeal. Progress has brought Everytown and, presumably, the world, peace and prosperity, but a loss of energy, drive, and determination. Cabal hopes to spur the next step in scientific progress by pushing for a mission to the moon using the aptly named “Space Gun.” Another Everytown citizen, Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), objects strenuously, bringing his case against progress to his fellow citizens via a giant video screen. Theotocopulos argues for a halt to the lunar mission and calls for a long period of rest from scientific advancement. Not coincidentally, Cabal’s daughter, Catherine (Pearl Argyle), and her lover, Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers), the son of Cabal’s friend, Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman), are on tap as the first couple to the moon.
While much of Things to Come either never came to pass (e.g., decades long world war) or isn’t likely to (e.g., Space Gun), Wells, Korda, and Menzies deserve credit for predicting how and where the next world war would be fought, through the air using bombers and other aircraft and on the ground, using tanks. The bombardment of Everytown is all the more visceral and disturbing for its prescience and, of course, its accuracy in depicting events that only existed as conjecture at the time. Budget wise, Korda spared no expense and it shows, as the bombing of Everytown is covered from seemingly every angle through a surprising number of quick cuts and elaborately staged action.
No less impressive is the aftermath, as a montage takes us nimbly through several decades until we arrive at an Everytown shattered by war. Wells’ assumed that a lengthy war would cause the collapse of nation-states and with that collapse, the rise of feudal warlords, but his answer, the science and rationality represented by Wings Over the World is as naïve as his earlier predictions about another world war were prescient. Still, the scenes in the middle section move quickly, as conflict is quickly established between the irrational, thuggish Boss and the rational, if no less autocratic Cabal. This section ends with another battle, smaller in scale than the first one, but again ably choreographed by Menzies.Alas, it’s when "Things to Come" moves into the third section that dramatic tension all but dissipates, as the views or ideologies in conflict are more abstract than concrete. At stake isn’t survival, as in the first and second segments, but a more open-ended future for humankind. This third segment also descends into sermonizing, as first Cabal and then his Theotocopulos, give long, elaborate speeches better suited to the printed page or the theater stage than the cinema, either in 1936 or, especially, seventy years later. The underground utopia of 2036 may be, at least on one level, fascinating for how men and women saw the future from 1936, on another level, it’s antiseptic, cold, and colorless (in every sense of the word). That doesn’t make "Things to Come" unwatchable (far from it, actually), just mildly disappointing given Wells’ much publicized involvement.
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originally posted: 01/14/08 14:48:04