Things to Come ★★★½

‘Things to Come’ shouldn’t be framed so much as a prediction of the inevitable WWII but the inability to predict the form of the war - even when the notion of the ‘Second World War’ as a term had been coined back in 1919. Both Wells and Menzies approach the film through the mindset of WWI - the Christmas opening recalls the notion that the war would before Christmas, characters wear medals from the war, the scale of the previous war is referenced in dialogue. But these conversations do however capture different attitudes towards war - just wanting to get on with life as it is and celebrate, or not seeing war as such a bad thing but a positive. Although the aerial bombardment of London - including the Underground - could foreshadow the Blitz (Nick Cooper in his commentary claims this would have resonated with and terrified audiences during its WWII reissue), just as the reliance on aerial combat could also, or the appearance of 1945 as a titlecard as the years pass - but it still relies upon different mechanics. Perhaps the most egregious is both the notion of a ‘Wandering Sickness’ (it brings to mind the millions of deaths in 1918 from the ‘Spanish Flu’ outbreak), but also the deployment of poison gas in 1970 (as had been used in the trenches, as Cooper notes) upon civilians - not as a force of ‘war’, but as a sleeping gas that represents the might of power that forms the new society of a century later, 2036. From the perspective of the Holocaust, a ‘Wandering Sickness’ that wipes out millions (if not billions) is simply the function of fascism, eradicating minority ethnic, religious, sexual and political groups in the name of eugenic ‘progress’. At the same time, framing ‘sleeping’ gas as a positive force to create a new society is exactly what Nazi pseudo-science and Speer’s architecture of a new world wanted to achieve.

The film’s visual iconography - airplanes and their pilots, soldier uniforms, the design of gas masks - creates an incongruity that only heightens when the film shifts into the 1970s and the present century - the film becomes an alternate history. The other incongruity is the societal disintegration into Medieval, post-technological society - a window into the post-nuclear world (less than a decade after the film’s release; Wells died only soon after the beginning of the nuclear age) - an element represented in the other notable British science fiction film, ‘Threads’.

Wells’ imagination of the future is laughable, but down to the inadequacies of representing a century in the future with no knowledge of what that period would really be like - the architecture and neo-classical robes looks more like a low budget ‘Metropolis’ - with walkways, flying vehicles, tube-shaped elevators, no notions of human labour - unable to destroy UFA (or London Films), but able to occupy significant space at Denham. As with the thousands of extras on Griffith’s silent ‘Intolerance’, I have to give credit to the scale of imagination of Wells, Menzies, Korda and the film’s production designers. That said, its vision is more in line with the Krypton of ‘Action Comics’ and the serials of ‘Flash Gordon’, ‘Buck Rogers’ and similar sci-fi productions.

A century in the future is closer to the 1960s, only three decades hence (remembering one exchange of dialogue from the film, war does indeed accelerate progress) - giant concrete highways, as urban areas were reimagined; the dream of the young to risk everything to witness the surface of the moon (but without touching down upon it). The philosophy of 2036, however, does still have a lesson for 2019. The attitude of progress, never allowing man rest to enjoy life, to eradicate all of life’s ills and inadequacies - follows more of the philosophy of Silicon Valley. An uprising of a society questioning this philosophy instead becomes powerful - how much progress do we want? Silicon Valley still dreams of the stars: not with a ‘space gun’, but with their own rockets, space tourism, product placement Teslas, to both disrupt and assist NASA. The UK having its own space industry - outside of a non-existent EU (though Wells too wanted to eradicate national borders) and outside of the paradigm of the US/Russia/China - is just as powerful indeed.

At the same time, the film acts as a reminder that even outside of totalitarianism and fascism, Wells’ vision of the future - ostensibly socialist and left-wing - still has the power to corrupt and restrict and br a victim to uprisings - if this vision does not follow democratic society.