Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies

Thingstocomescifi♦♦½

Somebody ought to remake Things to Come as the horror movie it is. Written by none other than H.G. Wells, based on his book The Shape of Things to Come, it’s a movie chock full of stilted dialogue and cardboard characters. But that isn’t what I’m referring to. No, this is a message movie, and the message is so abhorrent that it could redefine the term “scary movie.”

Gary Westfahl, identified by Wikipedia as a science fiction historian, wrote, “Things to Come qualifies as the first true masterpiece of science fiction cinema, and those who complain about its awkward pace and uninvolving characters are not understanding Wells’s message, which is that the lives and actions of individuals are unimportant when compared to the progress and destiny of the entire human race.”

Come again? It seems to me that Westfahl is a whole lot more interested in science fiction than cinema and probably ought not to hail badly constructed and poorly written clunkers as “masterpieces” just because he happens to approve of their message.

Anyway, I suspect a personal motive behind these statements. The “first true masterpiece of science fiction cinema” can be none other than Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which predated this monstrosity by almost a decade. But what did Wells think of Metropolis? He hated it. With a passion. And what was its message? Basically the opposite of Wells’. It all makes me wonder if maybe Westfahl doesn’t have a little fanboy in him.

But he’s right about the message, as distasteful as it is. World war begins in 1940 and is still raging 20 years later. Then a new government appears. Calling itself Wings Over the World, it is run by scientists and engineers who want to bring peace to the entire world. Not, mind you, to stop all the killing, not to provide a better life for the common man, but simply so that the elite can pursue their pet projects without any nasty emotional interruptions. Succeeding in this endeavor, they build a new world, and by 2036 they are ready to shoot a couple of people around the moon. Literally. Using a “space gun.” And the interesting thing is, in this brand new world of rationality and peace, the populace still revolts. They do so, of course, because their leaders have made no provision for the happiness of their citizens (really makes one appreciate that whole “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” business). Indeed, they care so little of individuals that even their astronauts have only a 50-50 shot at survival. These bastards won’t even wait long enough to push their knowledge and abilities past a simple coin toss.

It’s fine to sit back all smug and proud of the fact that humankind has gone from the caves to the moon in only a few hundred thousand years. But, really, what monster is driven by this? “Is it this?” the chief scientist (criminal) asks. “Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness?” Or is it, I wonder, not a binary proposition, you idiot.

What I like about the movie is its unabashed setting of “Everytown,” some of the special effects and visual design, and a dark-haired woman (Sophie Stewart) who comes on the screen dressed half like a dominatrix and half like a harem girl. “I don’t suppose any man has ever understood any woman since the beginning of things,” she says. Well, hell, girl, you’re a walking contradiction; what do you expect?

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