There are a lot of things to say about Things To Come, the arguably ambitious film that, while housing a group of some of the early 20th Century’s most talented filmmakers was the singular statement of one man: its chief evangelist H.G. Wells. Wells, famed science fiction author, was also a Utopian who pushed forward ideas about not only how he viewed the world as it should be, but how to get there. While couched in a sci-fi film that leads from the back door of WWI into the drumbeat of a new world war, ultimately one that virtually sends humanity back to a new stone age, the film is a visual pamphlet, a tract, or a lecture that at its worst comes down to one man’s control over all, castigating the notions of “ocracies” and “isms.” That is concluded in the third act, in the supposed new golden age of equanimity and technological advancement. There we find this enlightened civilization in their Greco-Roman/Flash Gordon togas, with the heir of the Cabal family (now the predominant power of a world order) planning to spread the new humanity into the universe.
If that all sounds a bit creepy, you’re right. When viewed back in its time of 1936, this probably all sounded and looked great, very hopeful, and the film concluded with the feeling that mankind had the capacity to rise up; not even the blackness of space could deny us. Seen with the eyes of 2013, it reeks of propagandist visions of near-fascism. In the mid-section, Cabal’s forces unleash the “gas of peace,” a knockout toxin upon the populace to purportedly save them from themselves, as well as to rescue Cabal from his captors. His army wears black leather getups to protect themselves from “the wandering sickness,” an environment-borne plague that is causing people to mindlessly wander about, spreading the disease as they slowly walk to their deaths, either by succumbing to the poisonous effects or through starvation and exhaustion. These black protective uniforms may not have meant to look like jackboot goon squads, but do so anyway…and these are the heroes of the movie.
Wells was the dominant force behind the film, as much the director as actual director William Cameron Menzies, but whether he knew it or not his film was extolling the virtues of dictatorship. He saw it as unification, of getting behind a single vision, a single goal, so that all the people of the world would reject nation-building and barrier-building, uniting under common goals — under common leadership.
And it looks good. As a film, Things To Come is a marvel to behold, with special effects that probably stunned audiences in ’36. They’re still pretty stunning today, and the film looks fantastic in Criterion Collection’s new Blu-Ray edition. But as the commentary (provided by film historian David Kalet, who also walked us through Criterion’s release of Godzilla) ably explains, what Wells wanted to show as humanity’s best, most attainable probability also presaged the horrors that would arise less than a half-decade after the movie’s initial release.
Seen against other wrong-headed “best case scenarios” like Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propagandist Triumph Of The Will, Things To Come is at its misbegotten core a plea to let one idea rule over all. We can only hope that the idea is good and that the person pushing the idea forward is equally good, but who should be the one to judge, especially if in Wells’ construction there are no means for oversight. Rather than wring out the old dustrag about absolute power, let’s just remind ourselves how even the brightest lights in our time are dimmed by the effects of control, and the desire to maintain control. Look at Egypt and the civil unrests. Look at Libya. Look at the bloody Syrian conflict and how being in power becomes more than the job; it becomes for some the only reason to exist. Control and power are the spark that fuels an action and the engine that burns it up all at once. The key figures who get to sit behind this engine for a time are loathe to exit that seat, no matter how “noble” their initial rhetoric to attain that seat might be. Wells casually glances over the fallibility of human ego and self-satisfaction, basing his premise on an illusion that, despite being able to build a future world with little more than a command, the primary stakeholder will still hang in with magnanimous intentions. This illusion permeates Things To Come.
As a film, the science-fantasy elements hold up well enough. If you can divorce yourself from the narrative’s implications and see it more like a very wordy episode of a rockets-and-rayguns kind of flick, the visuals take you through. This is in the end a rant disguised as a window to a better tomorrow, like when your dad tells you how it ought to be, and the “things to come” that will be a benefit to you if you see things his way. Your dad does not have access to the kind of money Wells and his crew had for Things To Come, which in its time was the most expensive British film made (to that point). And as Criterion always does, this release is miles ahead of any previous effort and may even have surpassed its initial theatrical showing in respect to quality of presentation. You will be impressed by what was captured on film in ’36, and the disc reveals it all marvelously.
But it is difficult for some, like me, to easily sink into the flick as an entertainment. This visual manifesto says nothing less than to put the fate of the world into the hands of one person, and he will guide all to peace, prosperity, victory and dominion over the globe and, later, to the entire universe…and if that idea doesn’t bother you even in the slightest, I think we have a real problem. In the end, Things To Come has to be appreciated for its technical achievements, because as a feature it tells a story that really is kind of terrifying, and is more terrifying because the guy behind it had no solid idea that what he was saying was really so frightening. That is the real problem with one vision controlling everything — you need a dissenting vision to balance it all out, to make sure that the common good is more a value to all than solely to you. Having not grasped this reality, Wells’ story, while having not a single robot in it, presents nothing but robotic archetypes that are shown as devoid of avarice and self-interest, but are actually oblivious to their own denial.