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Old Ass Movies: Things To Come

By  · Published on January 17th, 2010

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Things To Come (1936)

The most incredible cultural trend last year was the re-emergence of intelligent, high-quality science fiction. Even more fascinating, there were three science fiction films that were also 1) original stories that were 2) the debuts for their respective directors: Moon, 9, and District 9.

The range of success for these films, and other films (like the mild success of another sci-fi flick, Avatar) got me thinking of taking another look at a classic science fiction piece that’s as smart and well-produced as they come.

It’s Christmas in Everytown, and there’s talk of war coming to their doorsteps. John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is worried about the impending violence, but his friend Passworthy (Edward Chapman) doesn’t have a care in the world. After all, it’s Christmas, the bells are ringing, and even when those resonant echoes are replaced by bomb bursts, the war should help accelerate technological progress, right?

The opening of the film is a perfect counterpoint to the themes at work in H.G. Wells’s story. The grand sweep of hymns, the gathering of families and friends, the joyous looks of children as they enjoy their toys under the tree. It’s only the talk that’s grown dark. Unfortunately, that darkness spreads into the streets as bombs fall on what is most obviously a town based on London (in a film that came out 4 years before the London bombing Blitz of World War II).

But that’s really only the beginning of a story that spans the 100 years after the war came. The film itself is a careful look at one possible outcome of global scale war – the destruction, devastation, the devolution that society goes through once all of its cities have burned to the ground.

And what can grow back out of it.

The real beauty of the film isn’t in its perceived prescience or in its dark look at the murderous side of mankind – but in the pure storytelling power of the visuals. Things to Come was directed by William Cameron Menzies, a soldier in World War I, who is most well-known as the impressively talented Art Director for The Tempest and Gone With the Wind. His eye for design bursts off the screen even in black and white – especially the action sequences of explosions and planes crashing to the ground. In fact, it’s so impressive, part of me believes Menzies had a time machine and access to much better technology than should have been available in the 1930s. In several shots, if not for the quality of the film deteriorating, it looks like the movie might have come out last year.

Of course, H.G. Wells was able to adapt his own short story, and imbued the script with two elements that make it an enduring classic. The first – the concept of predicting the future as the past – is fascinating. We get to watch a bombed-out land plagued by The Wandering Sickness and plagued by the desperate murder of those that have it. The world has gone back into the Dark Ages. And they aren’t responding well.

The second – hiding deeper questions behind entertainment.

At the heart of it, Things to Come is a sort of popcorn flick with action, adventure, and a fantastical vision aided by special effects. If it had attacked the concepts of war and technology head on, it would probably be one of the most boring films of all time, but luckily, Wells was smart enough to tell a human story and grasping the core of good science fiction: creating a world unlike our own and filling it with people that are just like us.

The coolest part is the vision of the distant future where people live indoors through the use of artificial suns and they watch televisions that are completely flat! Can you imagine? Jokes aside, it really does take an interesting look at what might be the death of technology – a death that is referenced early on in the film when the ever-optimistic Passworthy sits around the Christmas tree with the happy children, blissfully unaware of the war at their feet. He makes a comment about how the toys of his time were much simpler and remarks that he imagines the children of the next generation would have even more wondrous contraptions.

I imagine he meant iPhones.

The acting is decidedly theatrical, which turns it into a soap opera from time to time, but otherwise the writing is sharp and it’s executed by a visionary artistic mind that delivers a future on screen that’s still fresh over 70 years later.

If nothing else, you’ll be impressed by a story that predicts World War II, a world’s addiction to war, and the sheer size of the enormous space helmets on display. Seriously. They’re unnecessarily large. Comically large. On the other hand, the film and its message are no laughing matter. It’s a true feat that should be celebrated, and if you haven’t had a chance to celebrate this particular achievement (and you’re moved by the recent rash of smart sci-fi) you should check it out as soon as possible.

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