I’ve posted about this before – here and here and here and here. What film is that? The H. G. Wells-scripted/William Cameron Menzies-directed Things To Come (1936), of course. Everyone should have a hobby.
The Criterion Collection just released a new, restored version on Blu-Ray. Oh joy!
Here are some stills – all crisp and clear for the first time!
Whenever I teach Philosophy and Film, I lecture about this film at some length. But some semesters I haven’t bothered to give it one of my screening slots because the DVD quality was meh. You can get a free meh copy from the Internet Archive. I’ve often told students they might as well just watch on their laptops. But now! But now!
Let me give you the short version of my previous posts about why this film is awesome and interesting.
First, you can see that the visuals are insane. All kneecaps and curtain rod shoulders and Darth Tweety helmets. ‘Nuff said.
In terms of the history, this film goes with Metropolis. It was Wells’ response to Lang’s film, which he hated. It was supposed to do everything intellectually right that Lang did intellectually wrong. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough fun and Metropolis turned out to be closer to the template for sf film success (even though Metropolis itself stunk up the box office.)
Things To Come is a big budget sf extravaganza that rigorously refuses all the standard, easy satisfactions of the genre. It is a sleek modernist lumberyard of missed opportunities to have more fun, in service of a hare-brained high-concept. That concept is: liberal fascism triumphant! Why don’t we make a film about a bunch of arrogant know-it-all scientist-types who force regular people to behave themselves better – because the scientists know what works, and the regular folks have screwed up the planet! – and it actually works! And in the end there’s a right-wing talk radio uprising, but it is easily put down. Buncha yahoos! I kid you not, that’s the plot.
I call it ‘liberal fascism’ because that actually was Wells’ term (that’s where Jonah Goldberg got it). Curious? Read my original post on the subject.
Anyway, the film is also the first modern zombie movie – in the Dan Drezner sense. (I talked about it here.) It contains a zombie outbreak that is a thinly veiled international relations allegory. It’s the first film in which, instead of a few zombie slaves in the swamp, there are deadly roving armies of the things. So why doesn’t anyone know this? Why isn’t it famous as such? Because it isn’t really a zombie film – not in the emotional sense. It contains all the elements but refuses to do anything fun with them, because that would make the audience sympathize with the ‘wrong’ characters. We never get to see ‘walking dead’-style ‘staying alive against incredible odds’ stuff, although it is implied that must be going on. The zombies are just these poor people – victims of ‘the wandering sickness’ – who lumber towards the living, pathetically, with their arms all zombie-outstretched. Civilization is semi-rebuilt by bastards willing to shoot the sick in the head from a safe distance because (true enough!) ‘it’s them or us!’ But Wells wants us to feel contempt for this sort of savagery. He doesn’t let us indulge any vicarious ‘shooting them in the head’ satisfactions. The only satisfactions we are allowed are those that come with the humane, passive-aggressive deployment of ‘the gas of peace’, when scientist finally figure out how to deal with the bastards who figured out how to deal with the zombies.
The film is so upside-down and backwards that there is actually a successful Iraq War-style ‘ram civilization down their throats’ war, waged from Iraq – where the scientists have set up shop – against all the little tin-pot warlords of England in a not-so-distant 1970 future. (Wells successfully predicts W.W. II, but also predicts that it won’t end until European civilization collapses.)
Wells also had an opportunity for a great villain, but he refused to take it, because it would have been too much fun. Cedric Hardwicke writes in his autobiography, A Victorian In Orbit, that he asked Wells to let his character – the right-wing radio talk show personality who leads the rebellion at the end – dress in a spiff Edwardian suit and drive around in an old-fashioned Rolls Royce, or something or the sort. All this in a future world that is a great big, light bulb-white Le Corbusier model of urban modernism. But Wells forced him to wear a stupid toga. Steampunk was thus averted for half a century. Alas.
In short, it is a fascinating conceptual trainwreck. There’s plenty (especially now – I’m still waiting for my copy!) to dazzle your eyes and amuse your brain, figuring out how and why this just isn’t working. In thinking about the philosophy of sf, in film, I often make these little four-square diagrams of conceptual ways to play some issue, in which one square is crammed with examples – because that’s how Hollywood plays – and the other squares are sparsely populated. Often one of the squares will have only one inhabitant: Things To Come. Big budget rationalist preachiness, unwilling – to a positively silly degree – to extent any sop of sympathy to the sorts of ‘but surely there is wisdom in Will Smith!’ impulses that usually dominate the genre. You’ve never seen it played this way before.
UPDATE: Greetings Krugman readers! Krugman is very right to link to Orwell’s essay on Wells. That’s the trouble alright. “In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he [Wells] sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.” That’s why he wouldn’t let Hardwicke invent steampunk. He made him be a Greek professor. Anyway, I just want to clarify one point I compressed in the post. Wells envisions a strict, two-stage process: fascism, followed by liberalism. (They are obviously different, so ‘liberal fascism’ is kind of like ‘ice steam’ as a name for a process.) In the book version, Wells makes the stages very distinct, and he emphasizes the abuses associated with the early stage more explicitly. The ‘air dictatorship’ has problems. In the movie, this gets compressed to the point of confusion. There is a stage where the airmen are wearing these big black suits, then a stage where they are all wearing white togas. That’s supposed to read as black and white, night and day. But there is no explanation of how something went wrong and needed reversing. And one of the actors – Raymond Massey – plays two different characters: a father and son. The air dictator Cabal, and his more humane successor. One in black, one in white. But somehow the impression is that black is white. It’s all one thing. Yet another problem with the film.