H.G. Wells’ 1936 script for “Things to Come,” based on his book “The Shape of Things to Come,” is more of a rumination on the future of humanity than a narrative work that follows a conventional form. It’s similar to “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the way both films leapfrog across history, leaving behind one set of characters to focus on another until the finale, when humanity’s fate is left for us to ponder.
Unlike “2001,” however, “Things to Come” underlines its theme with endless speeches by its characters about the ills of war and whether humanity can ever rise above its worst nature and find everlasting peace. I’ve never been a fan of such an approach, preferring instead for any storyteller to simply present ideas and let us use them as a springboard for discussion. Kubrick does an excellent job of that in “2001,” but by the end of “Things to Come,” I felt tired, despite its brief 97 minutes.
“Things to Come” spans nearly a century of history, from 1940 through 2036, and as such, you would think it should have had a longer running time. Its initial rough cut was actually 130 minutes, which was reduced to 108 minutes by the time it premiered in the UK. Prints of varying lengths were in circulation in the UK and the US during subsequent decades, and this 97-minute version seems to be the longest and most definitive one currently available, at least until a longer print turns up in a collection somewhere.
I have to admit, though, I don’t have a lot of interest in sitting through a longer version of this film. It only has two things going for it: its prediction of World War II happening and the production design and special effects. The story opens in the fictional Everytown on Christmas Day, 1940, with businessman John Cabal lamenting the start of war. He joins the defense of his country as a pilot.
The film skips ahead to 1966, which finds the war still going strong. Humanity has entered a Mad Max-esque existence, and a plague called “the wandering sickness” has been spread by an unknown enemy using the last few planes left. A man named Dr. Harding, who was one of Cabal’s friends, struggles in his attempts to find a cure for it.
The focus then shifts to the year 1970, as a local warlord takes control of Everytown. Enter Cabal, who has arrived as an emissary from an Iraq-based civilization called Wings Over the World. Cabal says they have renounced war, but when the warlord takes him prisoner, Wings Over the World attacks and assumes control of Everytown.
By the year 2036, Cabal’s grandson, Oswald Cabal, runs a new Everytown that has been built underground. Cabal has plans to launch himself, his daughter, and her boyfriend into space in a capsule fired from a huge gun, but a sculptor opposes them. The film concludes with a monologue about humanity’s fate should it continue to relentlessly chase technological progress.
While the film may be tedious, an accompany commentary track by writer and historian David Kalat offers intriguing insights into not only the making of the film but also the context of its release. Viewed that way, “Things to Come” is an interesting look at the psyche of the British population in 1936, as they feared the outbreak of another world war that could drag on with no hope of resolution.
The other bonus features include a visual essay about the film’s score, a series of unused special effects footage, and a 1936 audio recording of Wells reading a piece about the wandering sickness. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien.