Monday, August 8, 2011

Future Past

Film: Things to Come
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I have a big soft spot for old science fiction. I’d love to say it’s because I grew up on early sci-fi, and that is a part of the reason. I love early pulp stuff and there’s some truth to the idea that I’m enamored by science fiction that predicts a crazy future that has never come to pass. Things to Come, based on work by science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells, is that sort of film. The film covers nearly 100 years of “history” from war to war to devastation, recovery, restoration, and the threat of war again.

Interestingly, the film predicts a massive war starting at the end of 1940, missing the actual start of World War II by just a little more than a year. On Christmas day, war appears imminent, and three men discuss the possibility of coming hostilities. Cabal (Raymond Massey) is pessimistic, believing that war will only cause terrible harm. Harding (Maurice Braddell) agrees, and he does not look forward to the coming conflict. The third man, Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman) does not share their fears, suggesting that war probably will not happen, but if it does, it will stimulate innovation and invention. When the war starts that night with a bombing raid on “Everytown” (a loosely-concealed and renamed London), the country mobilizes and the war truly begins.

The war here is stylized to look very much like the sort of static trench warfare that World War I was most famous for. The war continues for years to the point where it is being fought simply because it is still being fought. Humanity is stricken by a plague known as the wandering sickness (in many ways the first cinematic zombies) that only adds to the general destruction and desolation. In 1970, the wandering sickness is essentially cured through the actions of The Chief (Ralph Richardson), who simply shot anyone came down with the illness, which ultimately claimed half of Europe’s population.

At this time, a strange airplane lands in Everytown. It's Cabal from the beginning of the film. He represents a group of scientists who now live in Basra, claiming that his, well, cabal (called Wings Over the World), has outlawed war and independent nations in the attempt to restore order and civilization. He is captured by the Chief and put to work getting the Chief's airplanes back into service. The Chief's main mechanic Gordon (Derrick de Marney) uses the fixed airplane to hie himself off to Basra to warn the scientists. Wings Over the World attacks, dropping a sleeping gas on Everytown, and when everyone is asleep, Wings Over the World occupies the town and kills the Chief.

And progress goes on. We get a montage of nearly 70 years duration as the world once again embarks on that path toward a technological world of marvels, but there are some who wish for it to slow down or even stop. Unrest begins as Wings Over the World attempts to launch people into the aether above the world. But many want the progress to stop if for no other reason than to prevent things from turning into war and pestilence again.

Any film that predicts a recent future is obsolete before too long, and while this film is disturbingly accurate in terms of what it shows humanity to be like, the future it predicts never really comes even close of coming to pass. Science fiction films always have this trouble, and it is definitely true here, when this film was rendered obsolete a few years after the arrival of the major conflict and long before the walking sickness.

It’s an interesting view of the future world, but it would in many ways be so much more interesting if it didn’t attempt to be anything that has since become such typical old science fiction tropes that they become expected and cliché. It’s not fair to this film, since in many ways it invented these particular clichés. However, once the cliché is there, it's almost impossible not to see it, regardless of it being fresh and new here.

Sadly, this is a film that has aged poorly. It comes off as stagey as well as preachy and moralizing. Too bad, really. I imagine for its time it was something truly special, but now the story is a bit dull and silly. While the lesson is still an interesting one, I’d rather not have a moral shoved down my throat simply because it can be.

Why to watch Things to Come: Science fiction when it was new.
Why not to watch: It’s aged less like wine and more like a dairy product.


  1. Sir Ralph! I knew him best as Ulrich from "Dragonslayer."

  2. For me, he's the old computer programmer in the original Rollerball.