Skip to main content

We're the last trustees of civilisation when everything else has failed.

Things to Come
(1936)

(SPOILERS) Turgid, lifeless and inert. That’s the future for you. Apparently, HG Wells’ influence over the production of Things to Come has been overstated, although it seems he did manage to ensure the magnificent Ernest Thesiger was replaced by Cedric Hardwicke; more’s the pity for any hopes the picture had of any spark of wit or humour. Whether or not Wells was kept at arm’s length, Things to Come carries intact a wearying surfeit of pompous speechifying and dry staging. Yes, there’s impressive spectacle here – some of it still impressive – but there’s nary a nudge of narrative tension. What there is, is an abundantly alarming approval of benevolent dictatorship, one that opportunistically reaps the benefits of the twin scourges of war and disease. That, and an unswerving faith in the triumph of scientific materialism as equated with progress.

These elements are sketched in broad strokes, more rudimentary and less detailed than in the writer’s 1933 tract The Shape of Things to Come; Wells wanted to direct his adaptation too, but common sense, or a degree of it, won out. Art director William Cameron Menzies took the reins instead, but directing was never his strongest suit. The refuge of the apologist is to profess that Things to Come was impressive at the time and still deserves respect on that basis. However, it didn’t exactly wow audiences then, barely scraping into the year’s Top 20 films in Britain.

And today, it stands as, at best, a curio. No one touts the source material’s prescience the way they do Wells’ fellow eugenicist and inside man Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World of a few years’ earlier, or the film’s resonance in the manner of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, of which Wells was highly critical (“quite the silliest film” as quoted by Time Out critic Chris Wicking). Indeed, it’s easy to believe the assertion that any window of relevance the picture held had vanished by the time the war it did manage to predict took place – or was it an early instance of predictive programming? – since it only went to emphasise all the things it failed to get remotely right: everything else. Albeit, I think such accuracy is actually neither here nor there – 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t fall through the cracks because it failed to reflect where we were at. Rather, Things to Come falters because it offers nothing else besides its slightly facile predictions. Crucially, interesting characterisations and dramatic scenarios are starkly absent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the written original’s anti-religious scouring is soft pedalled, so as to avoid ruffling audiences’ feathers. And there’s no mention of English – naturally – becoming the standard language for all. Wells’ “Wings Across the World” New World Order arises from the ashes of a thirty-year war beginning in 1940, and about the closest the film comes to explicit religious referencing is an opening that desecrates the cosy nostalgia of Crimbo, with its “World on the Brink of War” headlines heralding the dropping bombs. “If we don’t end war, war will end us” warns Raymond Massey’s heroic visionary John Cabal, almost Randian in his quest and just as rigid, the occasional snappy soundbite aside. I suppose one might charitably suggest Wells’ thirty years of combat takes in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, but something is seriously askew if things are envisaged to start coming together in the 1970s.

There’s little in the way of punch to the depiction of the societal degeneration that leads to rise of feudal warlords as personified by Ralph Richardson Richardson’s Rudolf, aka the Boss. Richardson was apparently aping Mussolini, but a natty sheepskin aside, he’s a bit of a bore (the actor’s just too refined for the part, and can’t disguise it). I think I even prefer the stolid Massey. Before we’re introduced to the Boss, though, we’ve seen Cabal unconvincingly soliloquising over shooting down the enemy ("Why does it have to come to this? God, why do we have to murder each other?") and the rolling by of the years (1945, 1955, 1960). Then there’s the announcement of a biowarfare agent, personified by the Wandering Sickness; it’s a “fever of mind and body” – don’t drink the water – that leaves its victims as less flesh-prone zombies. Presumably, it’s contagious – Wells is fully pasteurised – as those with it are swiftly shot. That, and it’s likened to Black Death in the Middle Ages (“It killed more than half the human race”).

John, meanwhile has disappeared, forming his own, er, cabal of like minds. He re-emerges with a shock of white hair, clad symbolically in black – he’s a grim reaper announcing the end life as the proles know it – and sporting a pre-Prometheus space helmet. Cabal has no sooner landed his aircraft – planes are a BIG deal in this future, bafflingly – and instantly begins dictating terms, despite being held at gun point. Which would be impressive if his presumption wasn’t so obnoxious.

With such queasy phrasing as “the brotherhood of efficiency, the freemasonry of science” he decrees that war “has to vanish. Like the tyrannosaurus and the sabre-toothed tiger”. As such, anyone planning to act under their own recognises can jolly well forget it: “Our new order has an objection to private planes” he informs the Boss. And, just to make it crystal clear, “We don’t approve of sovereign states”. Like all those bent on realising their big idea, John is chillingly pragmatic, accusing the Boss of being a traitor to civilisation and showing no emotion when he winds up dead. For their own good, to save them from themselves, everyone else has been gassed into unconsciousness – that’s all, allegedly, although things didn’t turn out very well for the Boss, now did they? – doubtless to awake chipped and vaccinated in a gleaming white future that doesn’t so much beckon as strongarm its way into existence: “Now for the rule of the airmen and a new life for mankind”. Certainly, the way things have unfolded, there’s scant need for a massive cull to arrive at a manageably-sized population for Cabal’s future vision. Events couldn’t have worked out better if they had followed the Georgia Guidestones.

In its own rather feeble way, this middle section at least offers some parrying of ideas, as undernourished as they are. The final 2036 sequence is the one that delivers on all the utopian dreams, which means it’s unsurprisingly dull. Well, it would have to be. They got rid of Thesiger, didn’t they? Theotocopulos, Hardwicke’s character, is a dissatisfied sculptor who doesn’t believe things have really got any better, despite all the white surfaces and the living longer. Hence his suggestion “Suppose someone shouted to the world ‘Make an end to this progress!’?” As political tracts go, it isn’t exactly nuanced. His stance lacks even the allure of even Luddism. It’s just someone being reactionary because his art isn’t all that. In fairness, while it would have been nice if there had been a little more substance to his position, it’s about as deep as the idea that there won’t be any war again, “Not if progress goes on”. Which is tantamount to Alec Baldwin’s “Always be closing” mantra in Glengarry Glenn Ross.

Besides, who could fail to see the allure of this future? There are widescreen TVs, disease is banished, and good diet is a requisite (“Colds we had, and indigestion too”). Plus, Roman togas are back in. Micro togas. No more pesky windows either (“The age of windows lasted four centuries” – which can’t be a Bill Gates reference; Windows only seems like it has lasted four centuries). There’s also the prospect of reaching the Moon via a giant space gun, so some things will be just as out of reach as they are now, come 2036 (“Why do you let your daughter dream of going on this mad Moon mission?”). And, just as now, Wells presents no choice with regards to embracing the technocratic future: “All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be?” We’ll all be glorious communitarians together.

Apparently, Terry-Thomas is somewhere there in 2036, but I didn’t spot him. Edward Chapman, fresh from Hitchcock and prior to hounding John Gielgud, is visible too, edging closer to his Mr Grimsdale in stoutness and persona (several of the players appears as several generations of their family lines).

Like Huxley, Wells was a member of the Fabian Society, and it might be argued Things to Come was his Agenda 36, having laid the groundwork in his Tavistock Institute-influencing Open Conspiracy. Certainly, he wasn’t being fanciful when it came to NWOs. Wells fell out with Lenin because the former favoured the elite families creating the very such global behemoth through business and technology, rather like Cabal bringing salvation through “order and trade” (instead, it will be the caring, sharing World Health Organisation, brought to you by Windows). 

On a surface, aesthetic level, there isn’t much in Things to Come to connect Wells’ “utopia” to today, but the themes of conformity and rigid elite control of a powerlessly complicit populace are evident even here; you’ll be free to do as you wish, as long as it allies itself with the ordained message. And as long as you haven’t been gassed by that point. It is curious that Wells the artist casts as an artist as the villain of the future, threatening all that noble achievement. But then, he’d long since stopped delivering creative inspiration by the time he wrote The Shape of Things to Come. How else do you explain a line like "To the Space Gun!"?


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.