Sunday, 8 September 2013

Things to Come (1936)

Krigen Der Kommer
Most movies have some positive and some negative attributes. At least I usually find a bit of both in most I have seen. What is special about “Things to Come” is the extremity of these attributes. This is at the same time a horrible film and a grand visionary work. Confused? Well, you ought to be, if not, just watch the film and you will be.

Let us start on the negative side, shall we?

The form of storytelling in this film is very disjointed. There are 3 chapters (1940, 1966-70 and 2036) “tied” together by vignettes of what happens in between. The three stories are too short to really get anywhere and the characters presented bump in and out of the film before we really get to know them. There is an attempt at connecting the characters, at least by their names, but it does not really work. Character-wise it is a story that goes nowhere. Instead the aim of the film is to tell the story of mankind in the framework of historical progression. In that much bigger picture the characters are merely representatives of types and drown out individually. Anybody who has read the works of Edward Rutherfurd will know how this can be done successfully, but the concept does not translate well to the screen. The problem for the viewer is confusion and sadly boredom.

Secondly the acting is terrible. It is done in a proclaiming style that would have made Shakespeare green of envy. Even on a stage this would have been over the top but in a movie you get that very clear impression that the characters are giving speeches for the camera. The villain of the second chapter, the Chief (Ralph Richardson), is the only one who manage to act as if he is in a film and not at a political meeting. In the other end of the spectrum we have John/Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey) who always speaks like a lecturer with his gaze into the horizon, full of pathos and ideology. That may suit his character, but it makes him absolutely intolerable and, well, he is our hero.

On the other hand “Things to come” is one of the first real science fiction films around. Together with “Metropolis” it helped define the science fiction movie lending us a number of concepts and visions that we are still in debt of.

As a fable of the future it is particularly interesting, especially when compared with “Metropolis”. “Things to come” sets up a conflict between the barbaric human nature that drags us down and back and on the other side civilization in the form of science, where science is both the tool and the target that can and will take humanity to Utopia. Man will have to go through a catharsis process that break down everything and take us to the brink of destruction before we are ready to embrace the light and live under the rule of science, logic and reason. In this view the barbarism is still vivid in memory from WWI and indeed the second chapter looks a lot like a WWI battle field with craters, ruins, machineguns, gas and pointless death. We even get the pestilence reminiscent of The Black Death and the Spanish flu (which raged the world near the end of WWI). In the thirties war was already brewing again and as usual all preparations were for the previous war. That Wells choose 1940 as the breakout of war was quite remarkable, but considering all the signs he was seeing he would probably have gotten it right +/-2-3 years anyway. It is however remarkable that he envisioned the war as a catharsis event. Even though the real WWII only lasted 6 years and not 25 years, the destruction was comparable and it did lead to United Nations and at least the idea that conflict should be avoided. The EU can be seen as a “Wings over the World” project that has worked remarkably well, built on the idea that integration and progress (well, economical progress) will prevent another war.

Science is the solution in “Things to come”. This reflects a very positivistic world view that was developed in the western world since Descartes and which reached a highpoint around the turn of the century. In those first decades of the 20th century the positivistic view cracked in a number of places, but in Britain the scientist/explorer/engineer was for long revered as a modern day knight, carrying the torch of progress. A view that only really got a blow with the nuclear bomb. In Germany, traditionally the most technocratic of all nations, Lang already envisioned the dark side of technology in the twenties with “Metropolis”. There technology and machinery keeps people in bondage and reduce humanity to slaves. Science is a tool for abuse. Chaplin took up the torch in “Modern Times”, but was to some extend ignored. Compare that with the shining future of mankind in “Things to Come”. Nobody does physical labor, machinery is colored in a bright palette and it serves to help us, not the other way. Despite the horrors in “Things to Come” it is fundamentally an optimistic film.

Yes, there is a rebellion in the last act and it does remind of the rebellion in “Metropolis”. People are rebelling against Big Brother who is ruling their lives. But where in “Metropolis” the rebellion is a just rebellion against tyranny, the rebellion in “Things to come” is a warning that no matter how advanced we get there will always be resentment and those who seek to take power through violence. The mob is misguided and must be turned or at least prevented from doing damage to progress.

A curious detail is that the solution in “Things to Come” is a new –ism. In a period in history full –isms; socialisms, communism, nazism, fascism, liberalism and what not, “Wings over the World” is simply another totalitarian –ism, which like its real counterparts promise a golden future for every like-minded person and a brainwash of everybody else. A procedure fully acceptable in 1936. As virtuous as their intensions and promises are it is still a very singular agenda and it is still processed by force. The difference is that a war-weary population is rather easy to convince.

See, that is a lot of words and thoughts triggered by a terrible film. So, bottom line, is it so bad after all?


  1. I didn't have a problem with the film's story structure, but I do agree that a lot of the "exchanges" were more speeches in disguise.

    I liked this film a little more than you. I've read a lot of science fiction and the "look into the future of the human race" and whether it can overcome its baser urges of fear and hate is a prevalent topic. The Hugo Award winning novel A Canticle for Liebowitz covers a lot of the same ground and topics.

    I really enjoyed the last sequence because you can take any number of real world situations today and they align almost perfectly with the scientists vs. the rabble fight in the movie. The mistake some people who oppose science make is that it is not a religion; it does not promise happiness, only answers.

    1. We share an interest there, Chip. I read a lot of science fiction too, though I am not familiar with the title you mention. Too often science fiction in films is just used as an excuse to amp up the special effects and they are often disappointments. "Things to Come" is in that respect a far more pure science fiction where the projection itself is the main focus. I applaud if for that. My problem with the movie is that it happens at the cost of everything that makes a movie watchable.
      Science fiction often tells more about the period in which it was made than the future itself and this is a good example. To my mind the most interesting element is how it is a child of a period of -isms. Particularly totalitarian ones. In its projections it works through the -isms and the
      Utopia is a variation on that. That is pretty cool to watch even though it may seem odd to a modern post-modernistic viewer.
      Concerning the last paragraph, in this film science actually not only promise answers but certainly also happiness. Science is the key as in a later age common wealth has become the key to a happier and peacefull world.
      Science in itself in the litterature has alternately been used and abused and where the mob in the first case are mindless mschinestormers (do not know if it is a word in English...) they are in the second case fighters against tyranny.

    2. A Canticle for Leibowitz is an older novel. It won the award in, I think, 1960 or 61. It was written by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

      In English there is a term - Luddite - that equates to someone fearful of, or disdainful of, technology. The term comes from England originally, and since it is capitalized I'm pretty sure it must be named after someone that was famous for opposing technological advancement at the time the phrase came into being. The mob in the film would be a very extreme example of Luddites. The term is mostly used on a one person basis, not as a movement of people.

    3. I will look it up, Chip. It sounds interesting.

      I seem to recognize the label Luddite, though not where it was coined. Probabably a name of some guy.

      Is it not curious that modern science fiction, especially in movies, is usually afraid of technology, where as "Things to Come" embrace it as THE solution? It is almost a dogma now that we have to be a bit afraid of those evil scientists.

  2. I like your analysis. The ideas in this film are intriguing, if a little simplistic, and the execution leaves a lot to be desired. I guess the director must have asked for the performances he got. Raymond Massey is normally quite good, I think. I thought the star of the movie was the set design.

    1. Thank you. Well, I blame the director. This is a movie with an agenda and the style is not limited to the acting. This is a political program as much as, or more than, entertainment.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The biggest problem with this film--and with a lot of future prediction science fiction--is that the future it predicts looks laughable once we get to that future. This is a grand experiment that only partly works, but I give it credit for inventing a lot of the tropes that we have come to expect with the genre.

    1. Indeed. This film can and should be credited for its vast contribution.
      I am not so unhappy about the projection it self. Of course we know better, but it will as you say always be like that. It is a bold projection and on a number of core elements not far off if you stretch it a bit. I applaud the atempt and the idea, but moan the execution.

  5. I wouldn't call this a bad film, but it's far from brilliant, too. I like to watch old sci-fi films like this to get an idea of what older generations thought about the unknown.

    1. And that is exactly why they are so interesting. They actually tell a lot about the time in which they were made.