As fascism rose across a continent like a dark tide, as economic depression savaged our own nation, this stirring (and fictional) account of world events from 1933 to 2100 presented the detailed imaginings of a committed Anti-Marxist socialist; one who accurately predicted many elements of our world today.
In his fictional account of "things to come," author Wells foresaw weapons of mass destruction (chemical "air torpedoes"), submarine-based missiles, the rise of Warlord-ism, the Blitz (and ensuing destruction of London), World War II, the invasion of Poland, "surgical" missile strikes, and much, much more.
Wells also envisioned other events: a world war lasting for thirty years, followed by a deadly plague ("The Wandering Sickness"), and then, the rise of a World State...and the end of nationalism.
In his future world, Wells' benevolent dictatorship eliminated not merely nationalism (and nation states), but organized religion. His conquering regime controlled the survivors of the human race through advanced technology, particularly mass transportation (planes). This World State also included the idea of advancement in society by intellectual merit, not by family name, class, or wealth. Finally, Wells saw the overthrow of the dictatorial World State after a hundred years...and a new age of technological progress beyond.
Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies collaborated with Wells to bring this tale of man's future to the silver screen in 1936. The film, Things to Come, has earned the title "classic" as well as the descriptor "visionary.” It is one of the genre's earliest and most awe-inspiring masterpieces, not to mention a special-effects stunner. I first saw it when I was a teenager- -- cut up for commercial television -- and have read about it in probably every science fiction film reference book in history. It's an important, landmark film in terms of genre, in terms of content, and also in terms of special effects technology.
Things to Come's central plot is divided into three portions or Ages. There is the pre-War Age (set in 1936). There is the immediate aftermath of War (set in 1966-1967) -- the post-apocalypse -- and the beginning of the World State, and a future Age of Progress (set in 2036).
Each of these three sections is centered in a fictionalized version of London called "Everytown." And, to one extent or another, each passage also revolves around one family facing the inexorable winds of change; the Cabal family.
Soon after this introduction to the characters, Things to Come depicts a happy Everytown by nightfall, at least until a truck with a white placard bearing the legend WAR SCARE appears in the background of a frame, in plain sight.
Before our eyes, we see a local cinema explode and crumble, a sign that the age of man's technology and leisure is at an end.
Everytown, for instance, comes under the corrupt leadership of "The Boss" (or "The Chief") played by Ralph Richardson, a warlord who quickly launches a new military offensive against neighbors called The Hill People.
Yes, it appears to be a Dark Age for mankind as Everytown runs short on medical supplies. It is also a place where knowledge of aeronautics and machinery seems ready to slip away forever...
But then, one day -- out of the clear blue sky -- a highly-advanced plane arrives in Everytown. The pilot is a gray-haired John Cabal, making a homecoming of sorts. He now serves in "Wings over the World," an organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to restoring trade and civilization to the area of the Mediterranean.
In a short time, however, Wings over the World arrives in force (in giant flying fortresses -- another prophetic concept from Wells), and bombs Everytown with the harmless "Gas of Peace." There is only one casualty in the attack: the Chief himself, who conveniently has suffered a heart attack. "He's dead and his world died with him," opines Cabal without pity, as the black-suited members of Wings over the World descend on Everytown by parachute. "Now...for a new life for mankind."
"We demand a rest," argues the leader of the anti-progressives on a giant, city-size view screen (seen by thousands of citizens). "The purpose of life is happy living!"
The film ends with a stirring, dramatic question from Oswald Cabal to his friend (and to us, in the audience.) "Which shall it be?"
What could mankind do -- what could we accomplish -- if we didn't squander our blood, our youth, our treasure, and our science on killing, on war? The sky -- nay the stars themselves -- would be the limit.
Wells also (rightly) predicted that for every advance in science that man forges, there is blow back; a counter-movement of men who want to take us "back" to an earlier era; who desire to believe in old superstitions and myth rather than utilize science to scale new heights. We see it now in the anti-intellectual movement that flourishes in this country today. For every two steps forward, a rump movement is trying to hold us back.
Yet what I find deeply troubling about Things to Come is this Welles-ian notion of a World dictatorship - benevolent or otherwise. Look at the scenes in the film featuring The Wings over the World air men -- strangely faceless and identical -- swarming through Everytown in their sleek black uniforms. This is just another face of fascism, isn't it?
Whatever its eventual form, Things to Come is accurate with this prediction of a World State. In our world, however, I believe it is likely to be a corporate world state, not a socialist one. There are steps being taken towards that today, if you look closely enough. Also, though I sympathize with Wells, I believe his socialist sympathies made him misunderstand human nature.
Things to Come is a powerful film filled with fascinating ideas, but some do clearly border on the simplistic. Cabal is ruthless...but well-intentioned. But how can we trust one man with all the power to be just?
Finally, the last moments of the film will remain with you, along with Cabal's probing question. The universe? Or nothing? Which shall it be?
Who’s got the answer?