It’s a dicey undertaking, this business of movies predicting the things to come. As popular a genre as there has ever been since the silent era, future-set films have a spotty but nevertheless fascinating record of getting it kind of right, really wrong, or something in between. Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, once confessed in an episode of one of my favorite television shows of all time that being specific about people, places, and dates really got him into trouble when it came to his success in practicing clairvoyance; accordingly, he chose to get a lot fuzzier about our common destiny in subsequent warnings about the always-impending arrival of the Antichrist and the ever-imminent Rapture.
When it comes to works of fiction, we have an easier time accepting prophetic tales as metaphor without getting much hung up on the details.
This is what keeps Michael Radford’s brilliant film version of 1984, for example, so powerful and relevant even today (just as the book remains a useful tool for politicians; in any given interview, you’re bound to hear one criticize the “Orwellian” instincts of the other); New York City didn’t turn into a maximum security prison in 1997, but we still regard Escape from New York as something twistedly plausible—with the absence of the World Trade Center towers both a poignant and disturbing reminder that a beloved landscape has nevertheless been radically altered within living memory.
Indeed, while we did experience world-changing events in the year 2001, their being unrelated to hostile A.I. and the appearance of a Star Child doesn’t reduce the visionary impact of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic one bit, even though that film’s predictive authority passed its sell-by date more than a decade ago.
The most successfully prophetic film yet made, Network, grounded viewers in a very specific time and place—what with its direct references to Edward R. Murrow, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the exact date Max Schumacher was fired from UBS, among other things—to put audiences of the time in a world that would feel very real to them, and therefore make its warnings about the direction we were taking feel that much more authentic. Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s film told us that the dark abyss we would face by embracing an opportunistic demagogue like Howard Beale was just around the corner. It’s fair to say that the proliferation of commentators who are regularly “mad as hell” has validated that foresight. And while we have yet to witness a live, on-air execution marketed as primetime entertainment, would anyone scoff at the idea that, too, could be right around the corner?
One film I haven’t seen very many turn to these days for re-evaluation in the context of, as they say, our turbulent times—is Things to Come, director William Cameron Menzies’ ambitious 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come, published three years earlier. While much detail from the book was necessarily jettisoned for the story to be effectively told within the confines of a feature film (in part by Wells himself, who wrote the screenplay and later expressed his disappointment with the final product), the general idea of the book remains intact in the film.
Things to Come forecasts a world war and outbreak of disease that devastates much of the globe and sets up a battle for the future of humanity. On one side of the conflict are the techno-savvy elites favoring a “world state” based in scientific progress and the suppression of armed conflict; on the other side is a resource-starved peasant class favoring the retention of “sovereign states,” the rejection of science, and violent force to suppress dissent and repel invaders. Even though the film pegs these events into very specific times—the world war breaks out in 1940; the poison gasses used bring about a pandemic that doesn’t subside until 1970, with the “new world order” taking hold in 2036—the film also embraces the allegorical by setting the story in a bustling metropolis known as “Everytown.”
This unusual combination of the very specific and very metaphorical in Things to Come allows for both the (not so productive) exercise of judging the specific quality of the film’s prescience and the (far more productive and intriguing) task of applying the film’s ideas and themes to what we find in society today and how well we think the movie might be pointing to our own future.
What I mean to say here is that yes, it’s certainly attention-getting how closely this 1936 movie’s bombing of Everytown appears to predict the London Blitz of only four years later, but we’re left with not much in the way of any spot-on mirroring of historical accuracy by the time the second World War of the film enters its third decade and mankind still hasn’t so much as left the planet in a manned spaceship, much less orbited or landed on the moon, by the year 2036. We’re much better off, and the film becomes a much richer resource for us, if we adjust the time the action takes place in Everytown to be Everytime—and most particularly, Ourtime—and ask ourselves how much truth it tells about what things have already come to pass, and how right it may be about the things to come.
Things to Come: Religion Fuels Global War
The opening scene of Things to Come, set during Christmastime, sets up a fascinating collision between the singing of hymns and the various gossip and placards signaling the possibility of imminent conflict. We’re tempted at first to regard these opening moments as a dramatic illustration of opposites—the purity and holiness of the holiday songs juxtaposed against ominous, foreboding words about violence and war. But as the film’s soundtrack gradually mixes the beautiful choral arrangements of “The First Noel” with the horn-and-drum fanfares we associate with military action, the meaning of this association becomes clear. Wells’ book is more explicit than the film about the proponents of the World State eliminating religion in favor of science; the film is more subtle about blaming the impulse to war on the existence of religion, but that linkage is there.
Is our next great conflict likely to arise out of religious passions—or is that already underway?
Things to Come: Plague Wipes Out Half the World’s Population
In the future of Things to Come, colds don’t even exist—at least in the world of those who choose to embrace science and progress. In the film, medical science grinds to a halt during the war, allowing for the use of poison gas to spawn a highly contagious “wandering sickness” that not only echoes the ravages of the Black Death, but also the shoot-‘em-in-the-head scenes of all those zombie movies we’ve come to know and love.
The “Boss” who takes over Everytown in the wake of its destruction after years of bombing desperately wants to regain control of his oil-deprived “sovereign state” by putting airplanes back in the sky, but, expressing an attitude that can only be expressed as self-sabotage, distrusts the engineers who can best advise him on how to achieve that goal. I seem to remember a fairly heated discussion between scientists and politicians about Ebola quarantines and the likelihood of the disease being airborne in the not-so-distant past; we hear qualifying statements of “I’m not a scientist” before the rejection of scientific ideas even now. Will the success or failure of humanity depend on the degree to which we embrace science?
Things to Come: Drill, Baby, Drill
Once the revolt by the desperately poor residents of Everytown is put down by the “brotherhood of efficiency’s” use of the “gas of peace” (it renders you docile by putting you to sleep, rather than killing you—except in one notable instance), the World State embarks upon a campaign of industry to exploit all the “natural resources of the Earth, water, and sky.” How mankind gets itself to a more prosperous future in Things to Come could be said to represent what is known today as the “all-of-the-above” approach to energy independence.
Things to Come: Everytown Becomes the World’s Biggest Apple Store
Maybe we’re due for a little light-heartedness now in evaluating the future world imagined by Things to Come. Art director Vincent Korda’s bright, sleek, clean underground Everytown is a lot like many other (positive) visions of the future—what with its apparent lack of physical objects cluttering up our living and working spaces. (For those of us who value things like real books and other physical media, however, this represents more of a nightmare than a paradise) And…is that an iWatch I see there?
Things to Come: Progressivism vs. Conservatism Decides Fate of Humanity
The battle between a even-tempered statesman (with prominent ears) who champions progressivism and a blustery radio broadcaster who opposes him, getting the masses “excited and angry,” while promising the coolly determined world leader that “We’ll hate you more if you succeed than if you fail”?
Yes: This is certainly one very effective comparison to draw when thinking about Things to Come today.
I could have spent a lot of time dancing around this point and not made these associations quite so explicit pictorially, but there’s really nothing at all subtle about the essential struggle taking place in Things to Come and how directly it relates to the war of words, if not deeds, occurring in our culture today. I saw immediate analogs to the present day in the main characters of the film who stand at opposition to one another, in both the “good” and the “bad” ways their supporters and detractors perceive them.
In the film, leading man Raymond Massey plays John and Oswald Cabal (a pilot and his grandson), who are devoted to the “progress” embodied by the pursuit of scientific advance and a strong world government motivated by the needs of “civilization”; his enemies, including the Boss of Everytown (played by Ralph Richardson) and Theotocopulos, the sculptor who has access to the airwaves (played by Cedric Hardwicke), both oppose progressivism. They are contemptuous of education and the scientific establishment; the Boss promotes the “peace of the strong man, armed,” while Theotocopulos issues his clarion call to arms over the radio because he firmly believes that someone should “cry ‘Halt’!” and “stop this progress,” because “radio is everywhere” and the people “will listen if I shout arise, awake!”
In Wells’ book, as I mentioned earlier, the elimination of religion in the world is made more explicit than in the film, but we can hear echoes of today’s talk of a “war on religion” when Theotocopulos complains to Cabal that endless progress makes “what we think great seem small.”
It’s all pretty clear to me.
On the other hand, there’s another way altogether to look at the story of Things to Come:
It’s the way we remember that this film is also the story of a technologically-advanced society invading a sovereign state, toppling an autocratic ruler, and then spending decades gaining control of that land’s natural resources and forcing them to accept a way of life they say they roundly reject. Does that sound at all familiar, too? This is one of the virtues of Things to Come, and one that we should always keep in mind when making casual, and critical, and forceful comparisons between historical figures and events past and present. (I’m talking to you, folks who love to invoke Hitler and the Holocaust at the drop of every hat)
Things to Come has been derided—not just by critics but also by some of its makers—for its overly didactic quality; it’s too “preachy,” so they say. What I find in the movie is that much of its dialogue resonates strongly because it sounds exactly like the way a lot of people talk today about the future. Heated rhetoric. Sweeping generalities. Hifalutin’ pronouncements. Love it or leave it. My way or the highway. With us or against us.
The movie ends with a question–Which shall it be?—suggesting perhaps that our future may reside in some certain resolution of a black-and-white choice. From its opening seconds, the film announces itself as an event that will illuminate that uncertain future as clearly as the spotlight falls upon those very words waiting in the darkness—things to come.
I prefer to see things like Raymond Massey’s Oswald Cabal sees them, though, when he is asked earlier what would happen if the world’s first mission to the moon should fail and the astronauts should die. He is resolved and at peace with his answer; that another attempt would be made, and another, and another. Asked if there will ever be an “age of happiness,” Cabal responds in a way that I believe not only illustrates the folly of making certain predictions about the future, but also pretty much sums up the entire human enterprise. Pronouns here adjusted by me, the hero of Things to Come says:
When we have conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time—still, we will be beginning.
A still photo of the title card from Things to Come offers its own Rorschach test to the observer: Is this a future getting brighter, or getting darker? Now tell us how you feel about this 1936 sci-fi classic and how it can (or can’t) tell us something about the time it was made, or our time, or the times still ahead, in the comments.