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Film / Things to Come

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Things to Come is a 1936 British Science Fiction film based upon the novel The Shape of Things to Come by H. G. Wells. Directed by William Cameron Menzies and adapted for the screen by Wells himself, the film follows a concept and plot similar to the book, and is seen mostly through the eyes of the cynical-but-visionary John Cabal (Raymond Massey) or one of his descendants (also Raymond Massey) and centered on a fictional English city called "Everytown".

The film is divided into three distinct segments of history (similar to the novel's division into discrete sections). The first, set in 1940 Everytown, juxtaposes the looming threat of war with a peaceful Christmas celebration, contrasting a bleak outlook with optimism for the future. And then the military is mobilized in response to an enemy incursion, and Everytown is devastated by bombers; the Second Great War has begun.

The war drags on for decades, plunging human society into a Mad Max-style After the End state and unleashing a deadly, contagious and incurable plague. When next we catch up with the residents of Everytown, in the then far-flung year 1970, it has become a shanty, all but overrun by plague-ridden citizens and ruled by a Small-Town Tyrant called "The Chief" who has taken an extremist method for dealing with said plague-ridden citizens — in stark contrast to a young doctor who, despite the now primitive conditions, is striving for a cure. Into this arrives a stranger: John Cabal himself, who reveals that human society has not been completely wiped out and is in the process of rebuilding itself. The Chief, however, is interested only in holding onto his own niche of power, and so Cabal must call down his military allies on the town.

Another montage carries us farther into the future, showing mankind rebuilding society into a shiny plastic underground city. Now, in 2036, John Cabal's equally visionary great-grandson Oswald is spearheading mankind's first expedition to the Moon. However, a radical dissident opposes the expedition on the basis that human technology and knowledge are advancing too fast (or something to that effect). The dissident's plot to stop the launch fails, and Cabal waxes on about mankind's eternal quest for knowledge. The End.

Wells had intended the film to be a response to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and he hoped to do everything he felt Lang had gotten wrong in envisioning the future. To that extent, the whole thing can basically be viewed as an extended Author Tract, with characters who are little more than two-dimensional ciphers who don't do anything but talk earnestly about how self-destructive and brutal the world is and how great the world would be if only it were governed rationally along socialist/modernist lines. Because, y'know, progress! Unfortunately for Wells, the movie bombed, and a lot of the ideas that informed his vision turned out to have severe defects that make the movie look really dated, and not just for aesthetic and historical reasons. But on the other hand, there's tons of Scenery Porn and the cinematography is pretty well done. It's also impossible to overstate how influential the movie was. Its ideas and general feel influenced Science Fiction writers well into the '70s. For example, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek and Isaac Asimov's Foundation are more or less expanded versions of Wells' future.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation
  • After the End: Eventually morphs into a Trope Codifier for Crystal Spires and Togas.
  • Astral Finale: Mankind having mastered his own world, he now seeks to conquer the universe!
  • Cool Plane: The giant flying wings of Cabal's air force, Wings Over the World.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: Everytown in the future.note 
  • Deadly Gas: Played straight during the war, but the 'gas of peace' only knocks people out, except for The Chief who conveniently dies of a heart attack.
  • Death by Irony: An enemy pilot, after he crashes his plane during a bombing raid, gives his mask to a little girl fleeing from his own gas bombs.
    Pilot: I dropped the gas on her. Maybe I've killed her father and mother. Maybe I've killed her whole family... *cough* ...and then I go and give up my mask to save her. That's funny! That's a joke!
  • Death of a Child: At the start of the film a child is marching the streets, playing Boy Soldier with his toy drum and pith helmet; after the city is bombed we see the boy among the rubble. Making it worse, he was the son of one of the main characters.
  • Diesel Punk: A Period version.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A young man and woman are sent to start life on a new world; the seed of mankind shot into space from a huge gun. Ummm...
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Chief, who has no other given name in the film, though he's also called "The Boss" in more informal situations.
  • Failed Future Forecast: As with the novel, double-subverted: the film predicts the onset of World War II, which proceeds to go on for a couple decades.
  • Film of the Book
  • Forever War: The war starts in 1940 and continues until 1970 when no-one can remember why it started in the first place. It's ruinous enough that society collapses almost entirely.
  • Good Old Ways: The dissident, Theotocopulos, in the third segment, who opposes any and all advancement of human society, apparently purely on the basis that it is advancement.
  • Huge Holographic Head: Theotocopulos addresses the people of Everytown with his Luddite message via a giant full-length holographic image.
  • Human Cannonball: The Bold Explorers are shot into space in a capsule fired by a huge vertical cannon. The concussive blast apparently kills all the rioters, but not the crew. This was subject to Technology Marches On even at the time, as the use of rockets for space travel had not only been postulated but even depicted in the movies.
  • Identical Grandson: Raymond Massey plays multiple generations of the Cabal family tree. Other roles in the film are treated similarly.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: A crippled pilot gives his gas mask to a girl whom he'd just dropped gas bombs on.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: Cabal leaves his service revolver to a stricken pilot that he shot down who is mortally wounded and stuck in a field of poison gas.
  • Lost Technology: Almost everything during the war. There are no spare parts to repair machines and oil is extremely rare.
  • Mood Dissonance: The opening scene showcases people preparing for a joyous holiday while placards and billboards proclaim the threat of war. Even the carols on the soundtrack have a decidedly dark cadence.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The first segment, set in 1940. The rest of the movie takes place Exty Years from Publication.
  • One Sided Battle: Justified as The Chief's decrepit biplanes are no match for Wings Over the World.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Cabal gives one to the audience at the end of the movie.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Chief makes a stab at this with what he has available to him. Ironically Wings Over The World do a far better job while it was still an Unbuilt Trope.
  • The Philosopher King: The third act shows a world governed entirely on principles of scientific progress.
  • The Plague: The so-called "wandering sickness", implied to be some form of biological warfare.
  • Quarantine with Extreme Prejudice: The Chief of Everytown deals with the wandering sickness by shooting anyone approaching the town who looks like they might be infected.
  • Raygun Gothic
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: An appallingly set single-sheet newspaper is shown costing £4 in 1966 (an average weeks wage in the 30's).
  • Space Clothes: A non-space example. Wings Over The World airmen wear distinct uniforms of this type.
  • Scavenger World: The setting during the war; probably the earliest example in cinema.
  • Time-Passes Montage: Used to link the film's three segments. The first instance is combined with a war-themed Apocalyptic Montage; the second blends with a Hard-Work Montage.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Somehow the middle section of the film invokes the Scavenger World aesthetic of Mad Max and the basics of modern day zombie movies without being a recognized antecedent of either of them.
  • Underground City: An early film example with the rebuilt Everytown of the third segment. It is depicted as a utopian environoment; in an inversion of both the still earlier example in Metropolis and of how the trope later developed.
  • Weapon of Peace: The Gas of Peace.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Invoked almost word-for-word by The Chief concerning the plague-ridden populace. The fact that he alone thought of this (or is willing to do so) is apparently what begins his rise to power.
  • Zombie Gait: While they're not technically dead, the shambling, cadaverous victims of the walking sickness definitely look like zombies. One could say Wells unintentionally invented the modern zombie.