The Bad Movie Report

Days of Future Past

Things to Come

Own It!

Science fiction concerning the future - or more appropriately, the near future - is a notoriously dicey proposition. A serious storyteller will try to extrapolate his future world from current trends and technology, and sometimes he even gets it right. Your less serious storyteller declares open season on probability and gives you cool spaceships and ray guns and monstas and stuff.

The poster child for the latter is going to be a movie we've seen here before, like Space Monster (see also Stomp Tokyo's current review), which posits that by 2001, we will have populated practically the whole damned universe. Or The Wizard of Mars, with a manned space flight to the Red Planet circa 1975. Said it before, will say it again: we've been a bunch of goddam lollygaggers when it comes to space exploration.

The other side of the coin is the extremely serious 2001: A Space Odyssey, which bears the seeds of its failure as futurist prediction in its very title. We were so gung ho on the leaps and bounds being made by the Space Race in the 60s that it seemed plausible that in a mere 30 years one could take the Pan Am Space Clipper to an orbiting station for your connecting flight to the Moon. The fact that the Pan Am referenced here went broke in 1991 was the first indication that we could toss our Space Clipper tickets in the recycle bin. And - sadly - here it is, 2001, and no commercial space station, no moonbase - just an embattled space station in progress and an iffy Mars program.

Who knows the future, lawgiver?There's a lot of things we were promised by 2001, and damned few of them have appeared; flying cars, jet packs, affordable robot servants. We can't even say cars got cooler, as promised in shows like U.F.O. --- the current trend seems to be retro-chic, harkening back to the days of the box-on-wheels (the PT Cruiser) and friendly rolling domes (the resurrected and surprisingly expensive VW Beetle). Truthfully, I do not miss the flying cars - I see enough vehicular moronitude on the road every day. Adding a third dimension to moron movement would give the phrase Keep Watching The Skies! a wholly new, and frightening meaning.

I would far rather live in something closer to William Gibson's futures, even as informed as they are by Blade Runner's dreary, grimy, rainy cityscapes. The plug in the skull is the sci-fi creation I hunger for. The ability to insert a chip and understand Mandarin. Is that so goddam much to ask?

Well, yes it is; Gibson was wise enough to include the possibility of "The Black Shakes" as a penalty for screwing stuff into your nervous system that wasn't supposed to be there. Because science fiction is not merely a utility cart to shuttle about the cliches of the Western or the Horror Film (though most of the "sci-fi" films made in the last ten years seem to belie that); it is also the ideal vehicle for the cautionary tale, the 1984s and The Andromeda Strains.

A picture that combines these traits is a great grand-daddy of the sci-fi film, Things To Come. Its pedigree is certainly impressive: written by H.G. Wells from his novel; produced by Alexander Korda; directed by William Cameron Menzies. The first is acknowledged as one of the fathers of modern science fiction; the second is rightly known for his epic films, the third, his artistic vision. With a combination like that, you expect something good; I'm pleased to say that expectations are largely met.

The picture begins by introducing us to "Everytown" on Christmas, 1940. The merrymaking and caroling are interposed skillfully with newspaper headlines about the looming threat of WAR. Whenever one of these placards is presented, ominous minor chords overpower the Christmas music. This seems to go on a bit long, certainly past the "Okay, I get it!" point, though it will serve a purpose later.

Not everyone was overjoyed at the return of "Big Brother"In the home of John Cabal (Raymond Massey), the celebration has somber overtones as the engineer worries about the possibility of war. His friend Passworthy (Edward Chapman) feels that the threatened war will not come, and if it does, it wouldn't be so bad. Great progress occurs during wartime, he says, and in the Great War (not yet numbered One) "something great had hold of us!" When Passworthy utters this, he is seated on the floor near the Christmas tree, surrounded by children playing with - of course - war toys. As the friends part that evening, Mrs. Cabal notices searchlights peering up into the night sky - followed by distant artillery fire. Cabal receives a phone call that the nation is mobilizing, the radio tells of an enemy bombing run. Massey bitterly tells the stunned Passworthy, "Something great has hold of you."

A montage countering the opening shows a bustling, near-panicked city preparing for the inevitability of attack, as military trucks blare out the message that any air raids will result in minimal damage - their guns will destroy all attacking planes. When the inevitable does happen, and the bass roar of the enemy bombers fills the air, havoc is the order of the day. Anti-aircraft fire proves little or no use, and the buildings that were painstakingly introduced in the seemingly too-long opening are blown to bits. Corpses litter the streets. The final image is predictable, but no less devastating: Passworthy's young son, seen only minutes before wearing a doughboy's helmet, playing a toy drum and joyfully announcing, "I'm a soldier!" - lies dead in the rubble.

Not the upbeat musical number it seemsTime marches on, and the increasing elevation of the war is demonstrated by ever-multiplying shadows of soldiers marching in formation. The clunky armored tanks of the 30s give way to stream-lined, Art Deco tanks. It is now 1944, and the War rages on, as an enormous flock of airplanes fly in over the White Cliffs of Dover (a breathtaking scene, considering the time). A biplane - flown by none other than Cabal - shoots down one of the enemy planes. Being a decent chap (and showing a chivalry that was much more in vogue during WWI, a vintage from which his aircraft hails), Cabal lands and pulls the wounded pilot from the burning wreckage. The Pilot tells him they had best leave, his cargo of poison gas is leaking from the ruptured plane. As Cabal helps the injured man put on his gas mask, a little girl runs across the field to them, and when Cabal tries to give her his gas mask, the Pilot insists that she use his - he is likely to die from his wounds anyway. Cabal and the girl climb into his aircraft, but not before Cabal silently leaves the Pilot his revolver, so he can kill himself rather than suffer the agony of the gas.

Though not particularly of a piece with the rest of the movie, the scene is memorable and important. It serves not only to point up Cabal's disgust with the senselessness of the War, it also humanizes the enemy - The Pilot, in fact, has no discernably foreign accent. We will see, as the movie progresses, that this Ultimate War will affect all mankind. And just to underline the senseless angle, as the poison gas swirls around him, The Pilot muses that on his previous gas attacks, he doubtless killed the little girl's family... and he has just given up his one chance of survival to save her life.

Flash Gordon really wants his tank back, guys...The War goes on... and on... and on... Literally. Scenes of trench warfare; a man's dead body hangs on the barbed wire, then slowly fades to mere tatters of cloth. By 1960, much of the world seems to be in ruins. In 1966, civilization has fallen back almost into barbarism, when a new wrinkle is added - "The Wandering Sickness". Victims fall into a feverish coma, then rise, to walk, zombie-like, into the wastelands to die. It is extremely contagious, and the fearful population of Everytown - now a mere collection of ruins - resorts to shooting the victims on sight. By 1967, fully one-half the human population has fallen to The Wandering Sickness.

After the plague has subsided in 1970, we find that Everytown has fallen under the rule of "The Boss" (Ralph Richardson), who initiated the Shoot the Sick campaign, and has set himself up as a Warlord, preparing to renew hostilities with "The Hill People" and thus ensure A Glorious Peace. Vital to his plans is a refurbishing of several airplanes in his possession; however, his one remaining mechanic, Gordon (Derrick de Marney) has no materials with which to repair the craft, and there is no fuel, anyway. "We've gone back too far," complains Gordon to his wife. "Man will never fly again."

Putting the lie to that is the arrival of a sleek, modernistic plane, flown by none other than the aging Cabal. After meeting with the mechanic and the local doctor (Maurice Braddell), Cabal confronts The Boss and informs him that a society of scientists Now THAT is a PLANE.and engineers called Wings Over The World is slowly restoring Law and Order over the war-scarred Earth. "We're an independent sovereign nation!" exclaims The Boss. "Yes, we'll have to clean that up," smugly states Cabal.

So naturally, The Boss takes Cabal hostage against any possible reprisal by Wings Over The World, and puts him to work repairing the airplanes alongside the sympathetic Gordon. The Boss wages war on, and captures, a nearby coal mine; the Doctor is put to work refining the coal into fuel. Once the airplanes are airworthy, however, Gordon steals one and flies to the base of Wings Over The World, who immediately fly to Cabal's rescue in glorious, massive flying wings, dropping "The Gas of Peace" - sleeping gas - on The Boss and his troops.

Over the next sixty years, "the last pockets of would-be conquerers" are similarly tranquilized and the resulting society bends toward rebuilding, using "this planet's resources that were previously squandered on warfare". Great machines mine the inside of mountains, strip-mining from the inside out. An impressive montage plays out, men working against the background of enormous machines - nothing says futuristic progress like freakishly huge machines. There is even a scene with enormous beakers filled with bubbling liquid. Science!

SCIENCE!Finally, there is another title card: Everytown - 2036 AD. But the Everytown we knew is still in ruins - until the camera pans over to reveal the new Everytown, built underground, in a nearby hollowed-out mountain. An impressive science fiction city, all terraces, walkways, monorails and glass elevators. I have been waiting years for capes to come back into fashion, and I am pleased to relate that will apparently happen sometime around 2030. My closet stands ready.

In this new Utopia there is, of course, a serpent: a dissatisfied artist named Theotocupolos (Cedric Hardwicke) who would like to see an end to all this blasted progress. To this end, he manipulates public dissatisfaction with the latest project of Cabal's grandson, Oswald (also Raymond Massey): a "space gun" which will fire a manned projectile to circle the moon and return. Appearing on a TV screen the size of Wrigley Field, Theotocuplos delivers a fiery speech stating, basically, It's Time To Take A Rest.

Cabal has other problems. His daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) demands to be one of the two people on the ship. Showing Attack of the 50 ft. Shakespearean actor!herself to be her father's daughter, she makes the statement that he cannot possibly send anyone else's child on such a dangerous mission. Also forcefully volunteering is her fiance, the son of Raymond Passworthy (also Edward Chapman). This debate is interrupted by news that Theotocupolos' speech has resulted in a rioting mob, and the Cabals and the Passworthys climb into an autogyro to quickly fly to the recently completed Space Gun.

Ah, the Space Gun. Uninformed by the German V-2 experiments, a journey to the Moon is still accomplished by this Jules Vernian means: a gigantic gun barrel (complete with front sight! Who's going to be sighting down this thing?) set down into the Earth, aimed at the sky. As the two young people board the World's Largest Hugo Award, Theopoctowockle's unruly mob storms from the city. The ship is lowered by crane into the gun (so it should really be called the Space Musket). Even as the rabble reach the Gun and even begin to climb it, preparations to fire go unchecked, and the launch - or more appropriately firing - is a success.

A young Charlton Heston, sitting in a darkened movie theater, sees the Holy Grail.Though the movie does not expand on the notion, it seems that the Gun's concussion was not good for the health of Theotomonocle or his traveling mob, as the final scene is of Cabal and Passworthy peacefully gazing at the night sky, looking for signs of the spaceship. Passworthy is concerned for the fate of his son, hurtling through the cosmos - "Man is such a frail animal!" Cabal responds - smugly, of course - that is the choice that lies before man: to be a cowering animal, afraid of its own mortality, or to strive to become something greater, and claim the stars. Cue the choir. The end.

This year marks the 65th Anniversary of Things To Come. Though its very age is impressive, its technical accomplishments are even moreso - the special effects are still quite good, and its prescience on some things is startling. Not the least of which is the timing of World War II. Well, they were a little optimistic on that one as far as England's involvement was concerned, but still...

Similarly, the movie can be forgiven for taking World War One as its model for the Last War, with trench warfare and gas attacks uppermost in everybody's mind. The air raid is a particularly harrowing creation, preceding the Luftwaffe's battering of British soil by almost four years. The lengthening of any mechanized combat into a conflict three decades long is unthinkable today, especially to an American, "Crap!  Barney Miller is STILL on!"as the last couple of conflicts we've been involved in were over fairly quickly, like the Gulf War. It seemed a little different, however, in the 60s and 70s, when we were involved in a grinding police action in Southeast Asia, and continued to funnel men and money into the conflict for over a decade and still didn't win. Prolonged armed conflict is still possible, unthinkable though it may be.

I think the other major prediction on display here is the creation of The Road Warrior films. Everytown under the Boss is the perfect archetype of the post-holocaust settlement - people living in ruins, rediscovering basic crafts, organizing into clans. A horse draws an automobile instead of a wagon (and with a bit of nationalistic pride, the driver points out that the engine - a Rolls - still turns over after all these years, though there is no petrol to actually start it). The major difference is that in a world untainted by nuclear weapons, Wells could only conceive of humanity coming such a pass after 30 years of war, rather than 30 minutes. There are also the usual holes in a post-apoc story, too; I noticed that, although the trappings of most technology seemed lost, someone was still capable of manufacturing metal-link belt ammo for the machine guns the Boss uses in his siege of the Coal Pit...

And if I take any comfort at all, it's that we beat Wells' predicted trip to the moon by 67 years - but then, we didn't spend 30 of those years on a World War.

Strike that pose, Raymond!Towering over the film's story is the figure of John (and later Oswald) Cabal, the picture's moral center who later becomes the moral center of the universe. Though Cabal, while hostage to the Boss, claims that he is only one member of a society, and therefore expendable, he is later shown to be the architect of mankind's resurrection from a new dark age. He is wise beyond all comprehension, and therefore not a little smug; for a story of this sweep, such an overwhelmingly strong protagonist is necessary, and it is to the credit of all involved that Cabal never comes off as messianic. Still, even the Competent Individual who populates the novels of another science-fiction futurist, Robert Heinlein, would likely find the character simply too good to be true.

Things To Come comprises three story arcs: The Great War, The Boss, and The Space Gun, and it is significant that in the bookending first and final arcs, Cabal finds himself opposed by revisionists. In the gentle, familiar atmosphere that is the homey prologue to The Great War, the revisionist is Cabal's friend Passworthy, who honestly (more likely, hopefully) believes that the last war, The War To End All Wars, was not as bad as everyone says, surely it was all just exaggeration. In 2036, the adversary is Theotocupulos, an indolent artist who yearns for the days when "life was short, merry and devil take the hindmost". Wells, a historian of some repute, has no patience for such revisionism. Both men obviously have no practical knowledge of what they speak, and both will pay for their willing blindness: Passworthy will discover the true horror of war with the death of his son and destruction of his home, and Theotocupulos, storming his enemy's creation despite Cabal's desperate warnings, finds his life will indeed be short, if not particularly merry.

Nothing says "Barbarian Warlord" like a fur vest and a semi-gypsy girlfriendNo revisionism is possible in the middle sequence - everyone is far too concerned with survival and the depressing certainty that civilization is slowly sliding from their slippery grip. Ralph Richardson plays the Boss in the way which only a classically trained actor can; he drains every last possible drop of character from the role, alternately bullying, conniving, even needy. The already pockmarked sets of war-torn Everytown will have Richardson's teethmarks all over them by the time his character apparently kills himself rather than fall into the hands of the Airmen, but Richardson never loses the Boss's essential humanity and believability. It is certainly the movie's most memorable, if not best performance, necessary to the movie's turning point.

Which brings us to the movie's major failing. It is necessary to view Things To Come in the context of its time, and many performances that seem trite and wooden by today's standards are the norm in any number of contemporary productions. Cedric Hardwicke's speeches as Theotocupulos seem overly florid and stagebound, but no less so than many other such performances of the time. Check out any number of late night offerings of that strata on Turner Classic Movies or American Film Classics.

But Hardwicke's delivery is the only possible way to approach that ungainly, mock Shakespearean speech. Massey has a similar problem in Cabal's speeches, in which he sounds like nothing so much as Jack Webb with an engineering degree setting some pothead straight in the old Dragnet series. That he gets through them with such confident aplomb is admirable. The tone of Things To Come is ultimately preachy in an unfortunate beat-you-over-the-head-with-the-lesson way, but its sincerity is not to be doubted. Wells is optimistic about man's possibilities, if ruefully aware of his shortcomings - which The City of the Future!  Clean!  Efficient!  Silly!may explain why he posits mankind's salvation to be a group of black-clad intellectual fascists with big planes and bigger dreams.

So, in closing, I'd like to raise my coffee mug to fellow B-Master Ken Begg, whom some have unfairly typified as a fascist, obviously without knowing what the term actually means. Here's to you, Ken - I'm more a fascist than you'll ever be, my friend, if only because Wells, Korda and Menzies not only made me root for Wings Over The World, but also made me actively yearn for their existence in this timeline.

And I still want that plug in my head, dammit.


Where the hell's my flying car?
And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
B- Notes
Cold Fusion Video Reviews
Strange Days
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
Opposable Thumb Films
Stomp Tokyo
Teleport City


Preachy keen.

- August 11, 2001