Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Smoke Screen" (October 5, 1974)

In “Smoke Screen,” the Butlers and the cave people from the nearby village, including Gorak’s family, are menaced by hominids called Gebos.  

Mr. Butler takes action to trap the leader of the Gebos, unaware that the villagers do not wish him to anger the primate-people.  In particular, they fear that the leader of the hominids will lead the Gebos on an attack against their homes.

Mr. Butler realizes that he can fend off an attack from the Gebos, and introduces the Villagers to bows and arrows. In particular, Gorak's people will use flaming arrows and baskets of fire to frighten the hominids, and send them scurrying back to their lands.

In a way, the fourth episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), “Smoke Screen,” is really about bullies.  The Gebos are cruel, mischievous creatures who often attack the village.  But instead of facing this menace -- for fear of facing even more monsters -- the people cower, and let the hominids have their way.

Butler interferes, which he readily admits may not be the right thing to do, but after apologizing, he sets about righting the situation.  Once more (and according to the formula I outlined last week), modern science helps to provide the answer to the dilemma. Butler teaches the villagers (and Gorak) how to be archers, and to repel the attacking Gebos.

Naturally (since this is a Saturday morning series), the Gebos aren’t killed in the climax, only sent packing.  The episode also doesn’t deal with the issue of whether it is right for Mr. Butler to introduce the cave men to a kind of weapon they have not yet developed themselves.  

However, the story is somewhat mature in the sense that it adds a villager here who clearly dislikes Mr. Butler and his answer to the problem.  Not all the villagers like or trust the strange Butlers, and this one villager (a bald man with a necklace) proves to be an irritant to the 20th century family in this episode.

Also, finally, I should add that one enduring value of Valley of the Dinosaurs involves the inaugural shots of each episode.  

Many times, before characters are introduced or the narrative begins, we get a montage of shots revealing the wild-life, and the landscape.  This contributes nicely to the cartoon's sense of place.

Next week: "Test Flight."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Class Clown" (September 25, 1976)

In “Class Clown,” a new student named Rudy (Alvin Kupperman) has been forced to transfer from another school because he constantly plays dangerous practical jokes in a bid to be popular and well-liked.

At his new school, he starts making the same mistake.  

Mrs. Thomas (Joanna Cameron) takes an interest in Rudy and reminds him that “making people laugh doesn’t mean you’re making friends,” but Rudy doesn’t get the message.

Instead, he orchestrates a practical joke in the chemistry classroom, using an inflatable life raft. And then, when he is forbidden from going on Mr. Mason’s class field trip, he ends up driving a runaway bus down a mountainside!

Another troubled student learns another lesson about being a good kid in “Class Clown,” a routine, instantly-forgettable episode of the Filmation Saturday morning series, The Secrets of Isis (1975-1976).  

Once more, Isis/Mrs. Thomas meets a student and sees that he or she is trouble, and once more she offers counsel. That counsel is ignored, and Isis is required to save the day.  

At the end of the tale, the offending student is “scared straight” and promises that there will never be a repeat of the bad behavior.

Case closed.

We’re nearing the end of Isis (just four or five more episodes, I believe, in the second season…), and by now the formula is well-established and kind of dull.  Nothing too Earth-shattering ever occurs, and Isis is never off doing something important (like rescuing a ship at sea, or preventing a forest fire...) when she is needed to help a wayward teen learn an important fact of life.

Occasionally the formula gets beefed up with an exceptional stunt or special effect.  Last week, in “The Hitchhiker,” for example, a car drove off a mountain, after traveling “through” a parked bulldozer that Isis had rendered intangible.  That was pretty cool.  This week, Isis levitates up into a class-room to end a dangerous situation in the chemistry lab. She also creates a stairway of mist that Rick and Rudy use to escape the bus accident.

Other times, the formula is so ingrained that the repetition just makes you think about other things, like how Isis could be doing some humanity some real good, somewhere, instead of acting as nurse maid to a bunch of entitled middle class American teenagers.

Is this really what Oh Mighty Isis had in mind, when she provided this power to her heirs? 

Next week: “The Cheerleader.”

Friday, May 15, 2015

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse: Survivors (1978)

For those of you who have never seen it, Survivors is an absolutely grim and thoroughly fascinating British program about an insidious pandemic which wipes out modern civilization and leaves the shattered survivors to re-learn all the old trades in order to build a new -- and hopefully better - world.

In other words, Survivors is sort of The Walking Dead, only without the periodic threat of rampaging zombies.  

Here, the true enemies are modern mankind's ignorance of his own technology and history; and the threat of dangerous, power-hungry men and women who see only opportunity in global tragedy.  The series is set in a new Dark Ages of sorts, with (some) humans afforded a second chance to get things right.

Survivors first aired on the BBC beginning in April of 1975, and was conceived and written by Terry Nation, the man behind Dr. Who's pepper-pot Daleks as well as the classic cult-tv series, Blake's 7 (1978-1981). 

Produced by Terence Dudley, the first series of Survivors stars Carolyn Seymour (Space: 1999, Star Trek: Voyager, Otherworld)  as Abby Grant, a not-terribly special or notable middle-class housewife living outside London.

But Abby's life changes forever in "The Fourth Horseman," the inaugural episode of Survivors.  After the opening credits, we find ourselves in Abby's comfortable country home as she deals with the inconvenience of a "couple dozen cases of the flu" in nearby London.

In short order, the inconveniences pile atop each other, and snowball  The phone lines become jammed.  The trains from London are not arriving on time, or have been canceled all together.  The radio tells an even worse story in America.  There's no electricity in New York, and a State of Emergency has been declared.  There are rumors that millions of people have already died in India and in secretive China.

Before long, the episode cuts to another main character, a single woman named Jenny (Lucy Fleming), whose roommate is suffering from the mysterious illness.  While her roommate is succumbing to lumps under the arms, fever and chills, Jenny goes to the hospital to seek help, and it's a scene of a modern health system in chaos, overrun and failing.  This is one of the most chilling moments in the entire episode.  A line of scared citizens are lined up in the halls, getting flu vaccines in their arms while an understaffed facility attempts to deal with the frightening and fatal unknown.

A doctor soon informs Jenny that the flu-like sickness has a six day incubation period and almost inevitably results in death, but that certain people appear to possess a "natural immunity" to the "mutant virus, not yet identified."  The doctor also implores Jenny -- who appears to be immune -- to escape while she still can, before the cities become "like open cesspits."  

Soon, he warns, garbage and corpses will line the untended streets...

The remainder of "The Fourth Horsemen" is every bit as bleak as this initial act. 

Abby grows ill but after several days unconscious, awakens "cured."  She promptly  finds her husband (Peter Bowles) dead on the sofa, and civilization, essentially, destroyed.

While Jenny wanders the  London streets alone and deals with thugs and looters, Abby sets off in search of her son, Peter, at his boarding school. 

Instead, she finds only an old man with a hearing aide, a teacher, who discusses the state of the world and a possible future. His perspective proves valuable. 

"The aftermath will be worse than the disease," he tells her.  "What is important is learning again," he establishes, pointing out that most 20th century people would not know how to make a candle from scratch, let alone create a machine to generate electricity. 

As this man stresses, "you need to know every part of every process" and "all the old skills and crafts must be learned."

This is difficult and frightening for Abby to accept at first, as part of the "generation that first put man on the moon," but soon she starts to see the wisdom of her mentor's words; and begins formulating, even in this pilot episode, a way forward. 

I admire this aspect of Survivors very much, and it fits in well with Space:1999, which also premiered in 1975 and concerned a global apocalypse of sorts.  Both series very much involve what Science Digest editor Arielle Emmett called (in regards to 1999) "the downfall of 20th century technological man."

What remains most shocking, perhaps, about Survivors is that this pilot episode has not aged significantly in thirty-five years.  Any fan of Dr. Who will immediately recognize the 1970s era visual aesthetic: film for exterior location work and videotape for interior studio work.  But the important thing is that the ideas have not aged a day, and indeed, the teleplay and its presentation are rather artful in presentation

For instance, "The Fourth Horseman" opens with a shot of an automated tennis ball machine, one that "serves" tennis balls to a human player, in this case Abby.  Thus the very image that the Survivors story commences on is one of, if not excess, let's say "leisure technology." 

Abby spends her afternoon staying fit, playing tennis with a recreation machine.  This idea fits in with the theme of the story: that the technological man of the 1970s, faced with a population-destroying pandemic, will no longer have access to such leisure pursuits, nor the wherewithal to construct such machines.  Later, close-ups and insert shots of radios, televisions and other modern conveniences appear, making the idea of the soon-to-be-lost technology a leitmotif of "The Fourth Horsemen.'

Another great moment comes late in the show, when Abby cuts off most of her long hair and burns down her house, making a clean separation from the lost past. She's living in a new world now, and her first act in this world is, appropriately, to re-shape her appearance to a more practical, less glamorous one.  Her second act is to destroy the symbols of the old world's leisure and convenience: the fully powered, air-conditioned modern home.

An absolutely riveting premiere, "The Fourth Horseman" has some nice visual touches beyond these, including a drastic pullback from Abby -- right up into the sky -- as she begs God not to let her be the only survivor.   The episode also gains significant frisson and impact from its deliberate comparison of this 1975 pandemic to the 1918 Influenza, which killed 50-to-100 million people worldwide (some 3% of the population). 

Over 500 million people were infected in what has been termed "the greatest medical holocaust in history."  Hard to believe I'm writing about something that occurred less than a hundred years ago, isn't it?

Terry Nation's implication with this comparison is obvious and important.  Something like this deadly plague has happened before (in 1918) and it could easily happen again, on even more catastrophic scale. 

Indeed, this bugaboo is very much with us today.  Remember in 2011, and the widespread fear of the H1N1 Swine Flu?  Or all the talk the year previous that about avian flu? And what was it this year...Ebola?

The fear, of course, is that with modern air transport, a person could do precisely what a clumsy scientist does in the opening credits of Survivors: bring a fatal disease from country to country before anyone is even aware there is a problem.

Later episodes of Survivors, such as "Genesis," find Abby preaching the cause of "re-learning" old skills to the other ragtag survivors of the plague.  She also clashes with men and women who see opportunity in doomsday, including a governmental official who fancies himself a Feudal Baron, and an aristocratic woman who wants to hoard goods because cash has no value, and people will work for her in exchange for food.  It is her goal to get a piece of the pie, and live in comfort...and goddamn the other unfortunates.

Survivors was remade by the BBC in 2008 -- following up on the contemporary fears of SARS and other viruses -- and was recently cancelled following a second season.  I have not seen the new series, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the original 1970s series to fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction.  

The original Survivors is bleak, devoid of Hollywood bullshit, and intensely frightening.  The writing is superb, and Terry Nation artfully utilizes the end of the world  scenario to raise questions about human nature, and issues such as law enforcement, allocation of resources and other post-apocalyptic, existentialist obsessions.

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse: Waterworld (1995)

Sometimes, mainstream film critics focus too much on the inside-baseball aspects of filmmaking for my taste. 

I suppose that everyone enjoys behind-the-scenes stories of disagreements between lead actors and directors, and tales of woe concerning films that run massively and catastrophically over-budget.  

It’s impossible to take your eyes off a train wreck, in other words.

And yet the problem with this focus on inside-baseball emerges when the same critics draw an explicit connection between behind-the-scenes strife and the artistic merits of a finished work-of-art.  In other words, some reviewers utilize the inside-baseball knowledge to fit into a specific, pre-drawn narrative. 

Using the former factors (behind-the-scenes strife), to judge the latter (artistic merit), is problematic, I submit, because the relationship clearly isn’t one-to-one.  A difficult shoot doesn’t necessarily result in a bad film.  Going over budget doesn’t necessarily mean artistic disaster, either.  And the opposite is also true: a smooth shoot doesn’t indicate that a film is going to turn out terrific.

Certainly, this unfortunate critical paradigm was exposed with both King Kong (1976) and John Carter (2012), both of which were received harshly by the critical community largely on the basis of behind-the-scenes, inside-baseball factors rather than a judicious consideration of artistic factors.

This fallacy is also true of Waterworld (1995), a film that, upon release, was clearly marked in the press as a troubled production, and furthermore, the most expensive film of all-time. 

Yet seventeen years later, I don’t know that our knowledge of those facts is vital to a fair assessment of the film’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Eschewing the inside-baseball stats and figures, Waterworld plays as a straight-up and not un-enjoyable transplant of The Road Warrior (1982) aesthetic, only in a world destroyed by global warming rather than by nuclear war. 

Kevin Costner’s gilled, mutant Mariner, in other words, is a wet Mad Max who, like his predecessor, is something of a variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, a classic movie character featured in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). 

In short, this archetype involves a “stranger” who rides into town and becomes involved in a conflict not his own, and who, largely, is rather stoic, allowing actions speak louder than words.  Similarly, Waterworld’s Mariner is frequently tagged as a silent brooder, and by film’s end has even become equated with “Death” Himself for his accomplished – if taciturn -- application of lethal force.

From this...

To this...

To this.
Beyond the obvious inspiration the film draws from the Mad Max mythos, Waterworld succeeds mostly because of the “reality” of the world it assiduously constructs. The film is one of the last sci-fi epics to emerge from the pre-digital age of Hollywood blockbusters and, accordingly -- and for all its apparent flaws -- boasts this heightened sense of texture or verisimilitude. 

Everything (or most everything…) our eyes witness had to be arduously constructed and set afloat, and that herculean effort pays off in a visual and imaginative sense.  You can practically smell the salt water and the burning fuel…

In terms of negatives, Waterworld takes an unnecessary dive into sentimentalism, a wrong turn that The Road Warrior never falls prey to, though Beyond Thunderdome certainly did. 

The film’s final act also consists of one generic action movie trope after the other, from the hero’s ability to outpace blossoming fireballs, to last minute, physically impossible rescues.  These almost cartoon-like moments tend to mark Waterworld as a product of eager-to-please Hollywood, and make it rather decidedly unlike its spare, gritty, Australian source of inspiration.

Still, some of the overt sentimentalism and action clichés in Waterworld might be overlooked because of the film’s absolutely original setting, and the skill with which that setting is presented.  The film’s lead characters -- when not grinding the gears of expected generic conventions -- are interesting enough to spend two hours with, certainly.  In keeping with the tradition of the post-apocalyptic genre, Waterworld also makes an earnest statement about man’s self-destructive nature.

“Dry land is not just our destination, it is our destiny!”

In a world of the future -- a world of ubiquitous oceans -- the silent, rugged Mariner (Costner) seeks to re-supply at a nearby atoll.  Unfortunately, he is arrested by the local Elders as a “muto” (or mutant) because he has webbed feet and gills behind his ears. 

The Mariner’s arrest comes at a bad time, because the leader of the eco-unfriendly Smokers, The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is planning to launch an attack there and grab young Enola (Tina Majorino), a girl with an indecipherable map to the mythical “Dry Land” tattooed on her back. 

Enola and her stepmother, Helen (Jean Tripplehorn) free the Mariner from captivity in exchange for passage out of the atoll on his boat.  They barely escape with their lives, and the Deacon commits to pursuing them.

On the high seas, the Mariner and his “guests” have difficulty getting along at first, but soon he becomes fond of the women, and they of him.  One day, the Mariner takes Helen to the bottom of the sea and shows him man’s drowned cities there.  That lost world is the only (formerly) “dry land” he knows of, he insists.

When the Deacon captures Enola, it’s up to the Mariner to rescue her, and more than that, to lead other rag-tag survivors to “Dry Land.”  Enola’s map, properly understood, holds the key to man’s future…

“He doesn't have a name so Death can't find him!

The quality I admire most about Waterworld is its physicality.

That may not be the best word, but it gets the job done in a pinch.  I could also describe this ingredient as “texture” or “atmosphere,” perhaps, but physicality better gets at the film’s rugged and powerful sense of setting, of place.  I love the Rube-Goldberg-style devices, the trinkets from the “old world” re-purposed for Waterworld’s tech, and the sheer mechanical nature of the world.  It’s a place of whirring hydraulics, tugging pulleys, fold-out sails, and endless, ubiquitous sea.  As a whole, I find it all rather compelling and even believable. 

As I noted above, most of this setting, at least in terms of the human dwellings and conveyances, had to be constructed and then set afloat.  I like the tactility and verisimilitude of this world, and realize that if the film were made today, it would be a different beast all-together, one “rendered” with digital landscapes and CGI.  

In other words, it would likely seem a whole lot less real.  But some of the little, almost throwaway touches in the film are really quite spectacular, and contribute to the idea that "Waterworld" is a real place, and one boasting a deep and long history.

A world that you can touch.

A world that had to be built.

A world that works.

And a world that speaks of another time.
In terms of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, Waterworld  escorts the audience on an ominous trip to the bottom of the sea, and provides a haunting view of an old metropolis turned to dust at the ocean floor, a clear analog for the Statue of Liberty moment in Planet of the Apes (1968) or the “empty cities” of The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) or Night of The Comet (1984).  But that’s as close to conventional end-of-the-world imagery as Waterworld gets, instead setting its action on an unending, dangerous, but eminently beautiful sea.  I have always been impressed by the visual qualities of the ocean, a realm that is both beautiful and incredible dangerous.  And the ocean, as we detect in the film, also does a good job of burying secrets…

In terms of its narrative, it’s plain that Waterworld owes a great deal to The Road Warrior, and indeed, the entire Mad Max cycle.  The Mariner, like Max, is a man who lives outside of human society and who boasts some disdain for it. 

Both characters live as scavengers and traders, contacting civilization only to re-supply.  Both the Mariner and Max form meaningful relationships or friendships with children (Enola, and the Feral Kid, respectively), and both eventually come around to the idea of “helping” an endangered civilization find a new home (either Dry Land, or the gasoline truck’s promised land destination in The Road Warrior).

Finally, both sagas end with that new home established, but the warrior himself returning to the “wasteland” arena to continue his lonely travels.  Mad Max and the Mariner are violent men with a code of ethics, and so they both realize it is better for them to remain “outcasts” in the wild rather than to seek domesticated lives inside a new culture. In Beyond Thunderdome, the new city-dwellers light candles for the wanderers who haven’t come home; in Waterworld, Enola and Helen watch as the Mariner returns to the sea, the realm that nurtured him.   

In both The Road Warrior and Waterworld, a central scenario depicted is the “siege” of a pre-existing civilization.  Outsiders on a variety of crafts try to “break in” and pillage either Oil City or the Atoll.  The beleaguered city, naturally, fights back, but the walls are breached by attacking vehicles, either flying motorcycles or launched jet skis.  Both cities eventually fall, leading to a dedicated trek to new home. 

These factors -- the siege and the trek – make the films origin stories of a mythic type.  As Aeneas had to flee fallen Troy to found Rome, so do Max and the Mariner lead homeless survivors to greener pastures…literally in the case of Waterworld.

In one moment in Waterworld, we even get a deliberate mirror image composition of a famous frame from The Road Warrior.  There, in the first harrowing action scene, we saw the savage Wez perched on his motorcycle, another goon seated behind him on the bike, looking at his prey.  We see very much the same framing in view here (also in the first action scene), except, of course, on a water craft instead of a motorcycle.

Despite the obvious aping of the Mad Max universe, Waterworld’s unique, water-bound setting gives it a lot of “juice,” at least visually speaking.  The images are so lush and convincing you can make yourself forget, essentially, that the movie is a pastiche.

A city shall fall.

And so will this one.

And a child shall lead the people to a better future.

And so will this one.

The bad guys watch.

And so do these bad guys.

As we have come to expect from post-apocalyptic films, there is an environmental message in Waterworld that suggests man’s self-destructive nature. The “Ancients” caused rapid global warming, and now, similarly, the Smokers are running through the last of their oil, trying to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle. 

Their need to live that life-style of relative leisure (replete with cigarettes, electricity,and even cars…) dooms the Smokers to a life of war and conflict, stealing what they need from other nation-states/atolls at the barrel of a gun.  The fact that the Smokers inhabit the Exxon Valdez, a poster-child for environmental irresponsibility, pretty much says it all.  And this too is America's fate, if we don't tap alternative energy sources.  We'll have to fight resource wars to maintain our culture's high standard of living.

Even the film’s villain plays into this leitmotif.  At one point, the Deacon attempts to flick a lit cigarette into an open oil tank, an act which could have instantaneous, catastrophic results were he successful.  The message is clearly that he is self-destructive, but there’s more.  By wantonly, thoughtlessly using up the Earth’s resources, we’re essentially lighting a spark that could destroy everything we hold dear too. 

We outgrew it,” one Smoker says of the Exxon-Valdez, and indeed that’s precisely fear of many environmentalists.  What happens when we outgrow the planet’s capacity to sustain us?

This environment message is leavened some by the film’s many action sequences, which grow progressively less satisfying and less convincing as the film continues.  The opening battles on the sea and at the atoll are genuinely awe inspiring, and feature death-defying stunts.  By the end of the film, however, rear-projection and cartoony explosions dominate the proceedings and some element of reality is sacrificed.

So much of the popular press still terms Waterworld a bomb (though it eventually made back its budget and more), but this is hardly a terrible science fiction film. Waterworld may not be a truly great science fiction film, but nor is it the epitome of Hollywood disaster, as many still make it out to be. 

Waterworld’s biggest problem, I submit, is that the film’s first half elaborately sets up a world and characters of tremendous interest, and then the last half spends all its time blowing things up, and resolving all the conflicts with fireballs and explosions.  In other words, it’s lot like many other examples of mainstream 1990s filmmaking.  And yet, the film doesn't open that way at all.  In fact, Waterworld's opening is a kind of brilliant "screw-you" to conventional  standards and decorum.  How many Hollywood blockbusters can you name that open with a shot of an established star, like Costner, pissing into a cup, refining his urine, and then drinking it?

And in terms of last shots, Waterworld finishes strong. The Mariner heads off to the next horizon and the next mystery.  Perhaps it’s the mystery of his very creation, or the mystery of the end of the world.  It’s kind of a shame we never got to see that second adventure. 

After all, Mad Max and The Man with No Man each got three attempts to get the equation right…

Welcome to the Post-Apocalypse: Things to Come (1936)

One of the pioneering "fathers of science fiction," author H.G. Wells (1866-1946) published a visionary chronicle of the future in 1933 titled The Shape of Things to Come.

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.

This personal, identifiable element of family makes the film a sort of "generational" tale, and more easily approachable in terms of narrative. Raymond Massey stars as John Cabal in the first two portions of the film; and as leader Oswald Cabal in the Age of Progress section.

Our story commences in Everytown on Christmas Eve, 1936. John Cabal is a pessimistic brooder who believes war is inevitable, and worse, that it is impending. His friends and family members, including a young doctor, Harding, don't want to see war "mess things up," and resist the idea of war's inevitability. Cabal mulls over man's nature with grim fortitude. "We must end war. Or war will end us," he states.

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.

In this portion of the film, we get a rapid-fire montage of several such war-themed placards until -- still on Christmas Eve -- war breaks out. Cabal was right...nothing could stop the conflagration of destruction. That very night, Everytown is bombed from the air in scenes eerily reminiscent of the Blitz (though they were shot years before...).

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.

As destruction rains from the sky, Menzies cuts to an image of a young blond boy -- no more than ten years old, perhaps -- wearing a soldier's helmet. The child -- apparently knowing what is to come -- begins to march like a "real" soldier.

After a few seconds of lingering on this image, Menzies superimposes new images (silhouettes, actually...) of adult soldiers on the march; juxtaposing play and reality; indicating that even the young will be conscripted into the never ending conflict. And indeed they are: the war lasts for a generation. In 1960, it ends....but only because so few people are left.

Worse, pestilence follows. In the burned-out city of Everytown ("a cursed ruin of a town," as one character describes it) in 1966, a disease called the Wandering Sickness takes hold. Those who contract the illness are shot on sight.

By 1967 half the human race is extinguished, and society attempts to vain.

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.

Since there is no longer radio, cinema or even newspapers, The Chief sees his propaganda scrawled crudely on a board displayed before the ruins of City Hall. On this board, the Chief promises "victorious peace" after the Hill People are conquered. But winning the war isn't easy, and the Chief knows what he needs to win: working airplanes. His chief engineer, Richard Gordon, can't promise him anything. "We shall never get in the air again," he laments. "Flying is finished."

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.

Cabal's mission is also to stop "petty dictators" and bring an end to independent, sovereign states...the end of Nationalism. The Chief naturally resists, and has Cabal arrested and thrown in jail.

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."

After a lengthy interlude during which vast machines build an advanced underground city, we skip ahead to the subterranean Everytown of 2036. 

Oswald Cabal is the leader of the city now (grandchild of John), but faces an insurrection from anti-progressives who fear that progress has gone too far; that technology is out-of-control and once again threatening the safety and peace of man.

Exhibit A in their argument is the vast Space Gun -- a giant device that is primed to "fire" a rocket to the moon. Cabal plans to send his daughter, Katherine, and her boyfriend, there, to prove that human progress is unstoppable, limitless.

"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!" 

Cabal doesn't hinder the speech (a fact which promises a world of free speech and free expression, at least...). Instead, he trusts that his people will be wise about the future. "They'll have to hear him," says Cabal. "They'll have to hear him and make of it what they can..."

In the end, progress marches on, and the rocket is fired into space. Gazing out into space via a telescope, Cabal debates the future of the human race with an anxious friend, one who sympathizes with the anti-progressive movement. 

Is mankind ever to stop moving forward? What comes after the moon? After the stars? 

At this interrogative, Cabal deplores the "ugly spectacle of waste" that represented warfare in the twentieth century, and says that progress, technology and wisdom -- the push into the future -- has made "danger and death worthwhile" and that the human adventure is only beginning. Mankind he believes, must "go on; conquest after conquest." The choice is as simple as "all the universe or nothing."

The film ends with a stirring, dramatic question from Oswald Cabal to his friend (and to us, in the audience.) "Which shall it be?"

That's a good and highly relevant question in our turbulent times of terrorism, warfare, and violence. The element I admire most about Things to Come is this pervasive, thorough and committed anti-war message.

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.

Nor is it difficult to understand why Wells has targeted nationalism and religion for extinction in his utopia of the future. As long as we divide ourselves into little teams (Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, liberals, conservatives, gays, straights, Marvel, DC, etc.) he believes we won't work together for the common good. It's not enough, apparently, that we're all human beings, or all citizens of planet Earth. 

If you watch the news, you know that some people (like Alex Jones) are mortally terrified of a united Earth, and yet dreamers like Wells and Roddenberry, alternatively, see it as a necessary precursor to utopia.

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?

These men arrive, utilize deadly weapons (even the harmless "gas of peace" is technically a weapon...), and then impose their will on the citizenry using superior technology. Now, these men would tell you they are doing what's best for mankind. But I would argue that's the same point every dictator in history has likely made. 

Who knows what's best for mankind? Who chooses? 

The point, I suppose, is that human beings should be free to choose for themselves how they live; not have a particular ideology -- even progress forced down their throats. Or am I wrong? Do we need a strong hand to point us to the light?

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.

Here's an example: In his vision, man reaches the moon in 2036, after a uniform World State is in charge; after nationalism is long dead. In our world, by explicit contrast, it was nationalism -- the Cold War with the Soviet Union -- that spurred the space race. We made it to the moon in 1969, because of the need to compete; the need to beat Russia.

So I can see both sides of the nationalism debate. It divides us and makes us want to kill “others,” but it also spurs growth and competition. As far back as Athens and Sparta, nation states competed...and the competition brought about great art, great science and great literature, no?

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?

Technology-wise, this film features extraordinary miniatures and blends them deftly with live-action sequences. The views of the Everytown cityscape of 2036 remain breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Some of the miniature war footage (of tanks rolling across barren wastelands) is virtually indistinguishable from stock footage. 

The aerial footage also appears remarkably real. This is an amazing achievement for a film made so long ago. It is ironic, however: Things to Come imagined a world where technological devices would become vast, colossal; in the real world, we've experienced a revolution of miniaturization instead.

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? 

More importantly, if it's the universe, how do we find our way to that future? Benevolent dictatorship? United Federation of Planets? Global free trade?

Who’s got the answer?