Friday, September 29, 2017

Things to Come (1936)

It’s difficult to judge a great movie.  Some are able to prove themselves relevant decades after their release while others have a social impact around the time release only to fade off into obscurity months or years later.  The movies my parents or grandparents liked or thought were great may seem quaint by the time the next generation comes of age.

Movies predicting technological or social advances tend to be problematic for this reason.  Sure, computers will get faster and smaller and will probably be much more useful in ten years.  It’s nearly impossible to predict their exact form.  For everything that Star Trek predicted, there are still things that haven’t come to pass or went in another direction altogether.  We have VR headsets rather than holodecks.  3D printing is sort of like a replicator, but I’m still waiting on something that can dispense something edible.

Things to Come was based on a story by H.G. Wells.  It stars in a place called Everytown on Christmas Day, 1940.  The threat of war looms, making it difficult for John Cabal to enjoy himself.  One friend, Harding, agrees.  Another friend, Pippa Passworthy, doesn’t.  Even if war does come to pass, it can’t help but stimulate the economy.

Well, war does come to pass that night, leading to decades of fighting with an unnamed adversary.  The Walking Plague kills half of humanity, leaving the rest in ruins.  Society degrades to the point where little, if any, technology still exists.  On May Day, 1970, an airplane lands outside the ruins of Everytown.  The pilot, none other than John Cabal, announces that the few remaining people with technical skill have banded together to reestablish society.  They’ve outlawed independent nations and have ended war.  Their new society is called Wings Over the World.

The Chief of Everytown wants none of that.  He’s not going to give up power so easily.  Wings Over the World is able to liberate John and the town, thus bringing them into the fold.  A series of images shows technology progressing and a new Everytown being built, this time underground.  Humans can produce their own air and sunlight as needed.  Everyone seems to live in peace.

Trouble doesn’t begin to stir until plans for a launch to the moon.  One segment of society doesn’t like the unending progress that humanity has made, instead preferring to maybe give it a rest for a while.  A space launch is dangerous, with lunar landings having proven fatal.  Why not hold off for a while?

Oswald Cabal and Maurice Passworthy are talking of sending another manned mission to the moon.  This time, it’s going to be a lunar orbit.  Their respective children make a case for going on the mission themselves.  A mob of angry people, not wanting the launch to proceed, force the launch ahead of schedule.  In the final scene, Cabal and Passworthy talk about the future of humanity.  What if we don’t progress?  What then?

I’m not sure how to judge Things to Come.  It has a strong anti-war message.  This makes sense in context.  At the time, war wasn’t far off.  This is something that the movie’s audience would have responded to.  Conflict is shown as destroying civilization whereas cooperation brings about progress.  However, progress isn’t perfect; unfettered progress can bring about conflict.

I’m not sure how much of an accurate prediction of the future the movie was supposed to be.  We have since landed on the moon, even doing a test orbit before putting someone on the lunar surface.  Some things were predicted with some degree of accuracy.  However, some things seem way off.  The final scenes take place in 2036.  I’m not sure we’ll be living underground in 20 years’ time.

I look at some of the predictions, like living underground, and wonder where they were going with this.  Underground cities might have some advantage, but it seems strange given the way that humanity actually went.  Predicting the end of civilization might seem a bit extreme, given that we’ve been able to survive two world wars.  However, World War II saw the destruction of cities and the deaths of millions of people.  The evens of this movie might not be that farfetched.

My biggest qualm with the movie is the quality.  From what I’ve read, several versions are still in existence and are of varying qualities.  I saw this movie as part of a nine-movie set; it contained the 97-minute version.  There were several parts that were of very poor audio and video quality.  I was able to make out most of the conversations, but I missed words here and there.  I wasn’t able to use captioning, which didn’t seem to come with the movie.

It’s also worth noting that the copyright lapsed in the United States, but has since been restored.  This may make finding the movie more difficult, as it’s no longer in the pubic domain.  I wouldn’t go out of your way to find it.  If you can see it on television or through Netflix, you can give it a shot, but I wouldn’t expect to make it the entire way through on the first try.

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