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Monday, November 19, 2007

Things to Come

This 1936 British production is another one of the early epics of science fiction movies. The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells, though with considerable input and guidance by producer Alexander Korda and director William Camreon Menzies. The screenplay was based on Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come published in 1933. He needed the help. His novel is a long, complicated, talky psuedo-history of the world from 1900 to 2061. The screenplay gave Wells an opportunity to rewrite and condense the (too) many themes of the novel into a more coherent plot line. Wells himself had to admit that his first attempt at converting his novel to a screen play was "quite impracticable for production." Even after much revision, the plot and pacing of Things to Come (TTC) can still seem complicated and a bit confusing. It's a huge story to tell in only 100 minutes.

TCC is not a typical mainstream cinema with straight-line plot, but IS a very ambitious sci-fi epic. Wells saw TCC as an alternate view of the future from Fritz Lang's Metropolis(1927) which predicted a rather dark future. TTC is roughly contemporary with Hollywood's Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, but has a much more of an A-film seriousness to it.

Throughout the film, Wells' anger and frustration at the "old world" of capitalism, nationalism and religion are blatant. The First World War (by that time) was only before, and leaves an obvious scar on Wells' emotions. Equally as hard to miss is Wells' infatuation with the idea of a humanist New World Order led by scientists. In his novel, and other writings, Wells is both Eeyore AND Pollyanna. He is both cynical about mankind, and yet, starry-eyed hopeful about mankind. Note, throughout, how the "old world" (the real world of Wells' day) is disparaged and the New World Order idolized.

Quick Plot Synopsis
TTC moves through three "acts", each having several distinct "scenes" which almost amount to miniature stories of their own. The first "act" covers the world before the war, the outbreak and the decades of war itself. The second "act" covers life amid the ruins of "Everytown" after the war. The third "act" is the world of 21st century.

TCC open in a generic "Everytown" on Christmas Eve 1940. War breaks out, sweeping aside festivities. Destruction comes to Everytown. War rages on for decades. Civilization is set back to the medieval level.

The "Wandering Sickness" devastates the survivors. In the ruins of 1970 Everytown, a petty despot emerges, reinstating a semblance of order. He's obsessed with getting his "air force" (a dozen WWI trainers) in the air. The status quo of The Chief's fiefdom is disturbed by the appearance of an ultramodern airplane.
Cabal, the pilot, announces a new world order: "Wings over the World." A cadre of engineers and scientists had been secretly keeping scientific progress alive during the war and how seek to impose the order of Reason. The Chief, not accepting his loss of power, imprisons Cabal. The Chief's engineer, Gordon, escapes in one of the trainers, and goes to tell Cabal's compatriots of his imprisonment. The moderns arrive in squadrons of impressive flying wings, to drop "The Gas of Peace" which puts everyone to sleep. Paratroops land, free Cabal and usher in the new world age.

Fast forward from 1970 to 2036. The modern scientific age has rebuilt Everytown as a gleaming underground city. All is not bliss, however. A prominent artist foments a rebellion against the age of Science, especially their "space gun" which is soon to launch a young couple to a moon mission. The incited mob rushes to break up the gun, but the scientists get the capsule launched before they can damage anything. TCC ends with Oswald Cabal (great grandson of John Cabal) rhapsodizing about mankind's relentless march towards progress and the universe.

Why is this movie fun
TCC is pure HG Wells. His vision of the future is very entertaining. TCC may be the only screenplay Wells actually wrote. Others have "adapted" his novels, but he actually wrote this one. This gave him the opportunity to remake his own novel -- which was far too bogged down with extraneous details to be readable. Wells gives us a collection of vignettes, each of which are full of food for thought. Throughout TCC there are contrasting pairs working off of each other, which keeps the tension alive. It's fun to watch the set and costume details, knowing that Wells had an artistic hand it. He didn't call all the shots, of course, but his hand was there.

Director, William Cameron Menzies, applies a wide variety of views which keep up the visual stimulation. Close ups, room shots, rapid montages, sweeping landscapes, off angles, etc. keep the viewer from getting a stale vantage.

Cold War Angle?
Since TCC was made in 1936, it was too early for a Cold War theme. However, there is a dominant anti-war theme throughout. Wells was not worried about the Soviets so much as he was against the war-making tendencies of the "old world".

Notes & Observations
Play of Opposites
Wells uses repeated pairs of opposites throughout the movie. In the beginning is John Cabal's fatalism vs. Pippa Passworthy's naive optimism. John Cabal's pessimism about mankind stands opposite Oswald Cabal's determined optimism. Similarly, 1940's "Pippa" Passworthy exudes confidence in his (old) world. 2036's Raymond Passworthy exudes fear and trepidation at his (modern) world. Then there are leadership styles. Rudolf "The Chief" is the bombastic, petty local warlord, wearing layers of authority symbols -- a uniform jacket, a home made rosette badge, a fur cape, etc.. John Cabal is the unflappable rational world leader, wearing a simple all-black jumpsuit. There are too many other opposites to list here.

Anti-War Themes
Wells was famous for his anti-war views. Some of the scenes are blatantly anti-war, such as young Horrie Passowrthy marching about in his Christmas gift soldier costume, only later to lie dead amid the ruins. Or the scene of the two airmen, in which John Cabal shoots down one of the enemy, yet the two talk as brothers, with the enemy pilot giving up his gas mask to save a little girl from the gas HE dropped. "I may have killed her father and mother," he said to himself, "yet I give up my mask to save her. Now that's funny..." The bringer of death then dies himself.

Yet, despite the many overt anti-war elements, there is an undercurrent of urgency to be better prepared for war -- a traditionally hawkish stance. A recurring theme in British culture is the fear that "the enemy" was better prepared for war than the British which left them vulnerable. This sentiment was often used to justify increases in defense spending. TCC does this too, at a more subtle level. For instance, when war breaks out, the "enemy" have gleaming sleek streamlined tanks. The British have antiquated post-WWI hardware. In the air, the "enemy" have swarms of sleek monoplanes. The Brit (Cabal) flies an obsolescent Hawker Fury biplane against them. In the early scenes, Cabal talks of needing to stop "the brutes." Stopping brutes usually means a fight.

The Tyranny of Science
As much as Wells is obviously promoting the benefits of a new world order in which the scientists and engineers are in control, the whole comes across as equally uncomfortable as the old world rule of nationalism. Wells has several characters pose the counter-arguments against the Technocracy, but instead of really defeating the arguments, Wells' future-man protagonist, Oswald Cabal dismisses them. When the mob cries for a halt to "progress", the voice of the people has no weight whatever. The elite scientists know best. Even though Wells framed his technocracy in glowing ways, there's little difference between his despot driven by faith in Science than an old world despot driven by religion.

Vision of the Future
Wells predicted many things in TCC. Some were correct, some were not. He correctly predicted the Second World War, being off by only a year and five months for the start. (Though in 1936, this didn't take a genius to see.) His notion of the clean art deco city complete with moving walkways and monorails, wasn't unusual. That vision lingered until the "post-modern" period. He almost correctly predicted helicopters. He did predict thin flat-screen monitors -- "televisors" -- , perhaps even the jumbotron. He also imagined personal intercom (cell phone-like) wrist bands. His notes even spoke of synchronism for personal electronic devices, much like we're seeing nowadays.

It's also interesting to see what he didn't get. He didn't foresee jets. His airplanes of the 21st century were still propeller driven. He didn't get rockets. His "space gun" was more 19th century than 20th. His notion of future clothing was way off (what's with the huge shoulder wings?) though perhaps if one only lived in climate-controlled underground cities, the quasi-toga bare-legged could work. You have to give him some points for trying. Wells could be the source of the sci-fi cliche that "advanced" clothing had to have huge shoulders.

All of the above tells you that Things to Come is a nicely complex sci-fi movie. There's a lot of meat to it, even if a bit dated. Wells' film adaptation of his own novel is much more accessible than his novel was. As one of the ancient titans of sci-fi, TTC is definitely worth the watch. A question still worth asking is: would the world be better off with a scientist dictator instead of a nationalist one or a religious one?

1 comment:

Brian Bartlett said...

strange but deep movie, I did like it alot. the only issue i had was with it's age.