It is this, or that – all the Universe or nothingness!
Things to Come is H.G. Wells’ story of the social, political, and economic development of humanity from 1936 to 2036. The film starts with contemporary life in Everytown from 1936 as war breaks out and leads to a pestilence that further wipes out humanity. Out of the turmoil rises the Chieftain, establishing a sovereign war state that has lost modern technologies. A mysterious traveler in a futuristic airship arrives to inform Everytown of a new global collective, a new world order. A collective working to bring peace and advancement of the human race. Will history repeat itself?
H.G. Wells did some interesting forecasting for civilization in Things to Come. The impending war at the onset of the film parallels the threats in Europe at the time. Only a few years after the film, United Kingdom would join World War II. The destruction and devastation of World War II would not reach the levels depicted in Things to Come. H.G. Wells’ prediction resulted in a post apocalyptic landscape. A world that had been bombed back to the stone age.
It would have been impossible not to see the influence and prevalence of fascism in Europe in the mid 1930’s. Hitler and Mussolini were established fascist dictators and growing in power. In comparison, H.G. Wells believed in socialism and social advancement. A blend of these ideologies are what are seen in Things to Come.
The new civilization established by the surviving mechanics and engineers, Wings over the World, purports to be a socialist ideology. However, the only way it can work is by forcing everyone to participate and abide by the laws of the new leadership. The methods of control are pacifist in nature, i.e. gas of peace. However, there is an authoritarian component to the way that Wings over the World demands participation.
The quasi-fascist party that Wings over the World establishes, has roots in social advancement through peaceful methods of control. Perhaps the blend in the ideologies was a way in which H.G. Wells saw his socialist beliefs could work on a global scale. The obvious difficulty in controlling a large group of people is the willingness of participation. The inevitable result is revolution and a repeat of the cycle.
H.G. Wells prophesied space travel a few times. A notable example is the early film classic, A Trip to the Moon, a film influenced by The First Men and the Moon by H.G. Wells. Things to Come forecasts space travel will be possible in 2036. It is too bad that H.G. Wells, who died in 1946, was unable to witness Project Mercury or the 1969 Moon Landing.
Interestingly, functional jet engines on airplanes began to take flight in the mid 1930’s. I wonder if jet propulsion, instead of an oversized gun, would have been the mechanism for space flight; had Things to Come been written in the 1940’s.
Humanity over the Individual
There is little to no character development throughout Things to Come. It makes sense though, given that the message is that humanity as a whole is more important than any individual. That also ties into H.G. Wells’ beliefs in socialism and the people, as a collective, having a more powerful impact than any individual.
The importance of the collective is routinely voiced by John/Oswald Cabal, played by Raymond Massey. Cabal hammers his message across at every opportunity. Even minimizing his own importance as the de facto leader of Wings of the World as well as that of his own daughter. He takes the emotions out of the death of any individual over the advancement of humankind.
Retro-futurism, as a genre, has been around since the beginning of film. For Example, A Trip to the Moon (1902) shows how Méliès, inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, envisioned civilization going to the moon, in a more comedic way. An early forerunner to science fiction and to space travel. Other films along the way were not afraid to touch on the subject. Films like, Metropolis (1927), Weltraum Schiffi Startet Eine Technische Fantasie (Space Ship Takeoff, A Technical Fantasy) (1928), or Just Imagine (1930), also looked at what life could be life in the future.
Things to Come began to incorporate retro-futuristic designs as soon as the story jumped ahead a decade. Showing what future tanks would look like and other weapons of war. Advancement halted once the war was over. A purposeful move to show the stagnation of advancement as Everytown focused on war and power. It was impossible for advancement without the collective working together. Once Wings over the World locates Everytown, the citizens are able to witness Cabal in a futuristic flying suit. The design a stark contrast to their torn and tattered clothing. After Wings over the World unifies the globe, it begins to make technological advancements at incredible speed. The advancements going beyond tank, airplanes, and clothing, and progressing to industry and architecture.
Directed by: William Cameron Menzies
Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Novel, “The Shape of Things to Come”, and Screenplay by: H.G. Wells
Editing By: Charles Crichton & Francis D. Lyon
Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, and Margaretta Scott.
Runtime: 1h 37m
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, War
Distributed by: United Artists