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.
poster child for the latter is going to be a movie we've seen
here before, like Space
Monster (see also Stomp
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
has other problems. His daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) demands
to be one of the two people on the ship. Showing 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.
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 may explain why he posits mankind's salvation
to be a group of black-clad intellectual fascists with big planes
and bigger dreams.
in closing, I'd like to raise my coffee mug to fellow B-Master
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.
I still want that plug in my head, dammit.