“We live in interesting, exciting, and anxious times,” declares the booming narration that opens the movie trailer above. Truer words were never spoken about our age — or about the mid-1930s, the times to which the narrator actually refers. But the picture itself tells a story about the future, one extending deep into the 21st century: a hundred-year saga of decades-long war, a new Dark Age, and, by the mid-2050s, a rebuilding of society as a kind of industrial Utopia run by a technocratic world government. It will surprise no one familiar with his sensibility that the screenplay for the film, Things to Come, came from the mind of H.G. Wells. Watch it in full on YouTube or Archive.org.
Welles had made his name long before with imaginative novels like The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds (find them in our list of Free eBooks), all published in the previous century. By the time the opportunity came around to make a big-budget cinema spectacle with producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies, conceived in part as a rebuke to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the writer had settled into his role as a kind of “eminent fortune teller,” as New York Times critic Frank Nugent described him in his review of the collaboration’s final product.
“Typical Wellsian conjecture,” Nugent continues, “it ranges from the reasonably possible to the reasonably fantastic; but true or false, fanciful or logical, it is an absorbing, provocative and impressively staged production.” It included work from not just important figures in the history of filmmaking (Menzies, for instance, invented the job of production designer) but the history of art as well, such as the Bauhaus’ László Moholy-Nagy. You can watch and judge for yourself the free version of Things to Come available on YouTube or, much preferable to the cinephile, the restored and much-supplemented Criterion Collection edition, whose extras include unused footage that more fully shows Moholy-Nagy’s contributions.
At the time, this much-ballyhooed spectacle-prophecy drew responses not just from movie critics, but from other eminent writers as well. In his Criterion essay “Whither Mankind?”, Geoffrey O’Brien quotes those of both Jorge Luis Borges and George Orwell. “The heaven of Wells and Alexander Korda, like that of so many other eschatologists and set designers, is not much different than their hell, though even less charming,” Borges complained of the envisioned near-perfection of its distant future. Wells, like many 19th-century visionaries, instinctively associated technological progress with the moral variety, but Borges saw a different situation in the present, when “the power of almost all tyrants arises from their control of technology.”
Things to Come has, however, received retrospective credit for predicting global war just ahead. In its first act, the London-like Everytown suffers an aerial bombing raid which sets the whole civilization-destroying conflict in motion. Not long after the real Blitz came, Orwell looked back at the film and wrote, ominously, that “much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the airplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age.” Or, in Nugent’s chilling words of 1936, “There’s nothing we can do now but sit back and wait for the holocaust. If Mr. Wells is right, we are in for an interesting century.”
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.