Things to Come, the 1936 Sci-Fi Film Written by H.G. Wells, Accurately Predicts the World’s Very Dark Future

“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

Welles had made his name long before with imag­i­na­tive nov­els like The Time MachineThe Island of Doc­tor More­auThe 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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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Great Leonard Nimoy Reads H.G. Wells’ Sem­i­nal Sci-Fi Nov­el The War of the Worlds

H.G. Wells Inter­views Joseph Stal­in in 1934; Declares “I Am More to The Left Than You, Mr. Stal­in”

The Dead Authors Pod­cast: H.G. Wells Com­i­cal­ly Revives Lit­er­ary Greats with His Time Machine

Metrop­o­lis: Watch a Restored Ver­sion of Fritz Lang’s Mas­ter­piece (1927)

Jules Verne Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts What the 20th Cen­tu­ry Will Look Like in His Lost Nov­el, Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (1863)

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.

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