Things to Come is a vision of the future, from 1936. It predicts the world from 1940 to 2036, beginning with a decades-long world war that leads to the destruction of civilisation. A new civilisation eventually rises from the ashes. It’s a society led by engineers and scientists. While the new epoch develops technologically at speed, many within it are unhappy, and uneasy with its obsession with science.
Some contemporary critics found the social collapse (after decades of war) hard to believe. And the future world, preposterous. Today after the Cold War, and the internet, anything seems possible.
In Things to Come, there are flying machines of various kinds (but no jets), flat screen TVs, wrist watch communicator devices, and a blitzkrieg-style of mechanised warfare. There’s a space gun (literally), but no rockets. And there’s a public address system in the form of a giant hologram.
Culturally the film is very much of its time. The dialogue is preachy. The interactions are often ridiculously wooden. And I found the music (acclaimed by many), imposing and unsubtle.
Early on a women says to her husband, ‘I wanted to serve you and make life happy for you.’ Weird, huh? Enough said.
As a culture, I found the Wings Over the World futureopolis incredibly dull. They call themselves the ‘freemasonry of science’. Please. No thanks. The futureopolis is all about engineering and building gigantic things. Little else. Don’t people want to have fun there? Don’t they get tired of being so earnest all the time?
Style-wise the futureopolis feels very Logan’s Run. Little has changed, thirty years later on from Things to Come. There’s a definite Ancient Rome of the future vibe going on. British Socialism of the 1950s. Or, conversely, Stalinism. There’s not much democracy around here either.
This is where it feels naive. With so much centralised power, wouldn’t the place have lapsed into some kind of authoritarian dystopia? It probably has… only the filmmakers don’t seem to realise it.
The post-apocalyptic Everytown (annoying name) that we met in the 1930s is now in ruins. This was my favourite section of the film. Sick people (with the plague-like ‘wandering sickness’) provide zombie-like cannon fodder. In a contemporary zombie film, popping a few zombies with head shots is all part of the genre. Think nothing of it. Here, it’s a fraught moral problem.
There’s no petrol in the post-apocalyptic Everytown. There’s a nice shot of a man in car. The camera pulls away and it’s being pulled by a horse. A nice visual gag. In this respect it’s a precursor to Mad Max. It’s a precursor to Five (1951) the first Cold War post-apocalyptic film. I could well be the first post-apocalyptic movie. Unlike most Cold War post-apocalypse stories from the Cold War this has a potentially optimistic outcome (with some caveats).
The post-apocalyptic Everytown is run by a Churchill-like character who’s become an authoritarian strong man. The culture has lapsed into ‘barbarity’. It didn’t seem that barbaric to me. I wanted more barbarity. Cannibalism. Or something. Spice it up. Just because they live in a ruined city, and the leadership is incompetent (ring any bells?), doesn’t mean that they’re barbarians. Or maybe to a 1936 audience it does? How could we ever know?
And then there’s the space gun. A big theme in early science fiction, and completely wrong.
Rockets. If you want to get people into space, that’s where it’s at.
At least a man and a women are sent up into space. How liberated. But there’s a big dilemma about going into space. Should we? Shouldn’t we? It’s a worry that never played out in the actual space race.
For all its limitations and flaws, Things to Come is still a remarkable prediction of the future. It also reminds storytellers that technology is in some ways easier to predict than cultural change.
Often in science fiction, contemporary issues (that seem important now) become non-issues. While issues that we would not see as important become unexpectedly significant. Things to Come acknowledges this in some ways. How the future (with hindsight of looking back into the past) would not seem entirely rational. And yet the futureopolis it presents feels weirdly fascistic with its engineer ‘ruler’ and oversized construction projects, scaled to make the individual seem insignificant.