The story of a century: a decades-long second World War leaves plague and anarchy, then a rational state rebuilds civilization and attempts space travel.The story of a century: a decades-long second World War leaves plague and anarchy, then a rational state rebuilds civilization and attempts space travel.The story of a century: a decades-long second World War leaves plague and anarchy, then a rational state rebuilds civilization and attempts space travel.
Don't look to this flick for well-rounded characters, a coherent A-to-B storyline or naturalistic dialogue and body language. It's a grandiose thesis in images, designed to pose Wells's constant question: must Man drive himself on to explore his and Nature's potentialities at all costs, or will he grow tired and afraid of transforming the world and his own nature?
At the beginning, we see the destructiveness of total war: potentialities for harm, even for collective suicide. Nations fight each other to the death, the "Wandering Sickness" bounces civilisation back to a primitive subsistence and it requires a new breed of airborne technocrat to set progress rolling again. At the finish, we see the revolt of the masses spurred by artists and abstract thinkers who fear progress; they are out to smash the Space Gun before Man can launch his children into the frightening terra incognita of space.
Along the way, a devastating prophecy of World War Two, all mass bomber raids and poison gas, with tank blitzkriegs for good measure. It must have chilled the blood of the film's original spectators, for the first bombs on Everytown demolish a cinema. Cameron Menzies shoots the raid in dynamic Russian-montage style with a brilliant use of sound: the incoming bombers which will "always get through" buzz louder and louder like a swarm of hornets. After years of deepening chaos, order is roughly restored by Ralph Richardson's Mussolini-like "Boss" (who says Thirties films weren't allowed to do satire?) before he is brushed aside by Raymond Massey's burning-eyed, supercilious Airman, who seems more of a tyrant than Richardson. No democratic nonsense for Wings Over the World.
The final sequence of Everytown in the future is an art deco poem in gleaming silver and grey, which evokes the streamlining so in vogue between the wars. Wells's imagination does not stretch to jet propulsion, and the "helicopter" spotted by one IMDB reviewer is more probably based on Ricardo De La Cierva's autogiro; but other aspects of 1936's future, such as the mall-like internal public spaces full of plants and giant TV screens, are spot-on. In the long montage of rebuilding Everytown, laser cutting technology and computers are implied: the movie was released the year Alan Turing's famous paper on computable numbers was written.
More than "The Private Life of Henry VIII", "Things to Come" stands for Korda's rescue job on the British sound film. For it went beyond anything Hollywood, then preoccupied with Thalberg-esque costume frolics and Warners' problem pictures, could imagine. London Films demonstrated that British skill in special effects could surpass America's, while the score by Arthur Bliss was the first to be sold on disc.
None of this necessarily matters to today's casual viewer, and the occasionally creaky or "fratefully refained" bit of acting is bathetic; but these flaws are easily forgiven against the grandeur of the conception, and the abiding relevance of the final question sung into the starry night. "Which Shall It Be?"- dangerous development or soothing stagnation? The choice is still ours.
- May 12, 2002