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?