Things to Come (1936)

Let's acknowledge up front that this isn't something I'd call a Christmas movie, though it comes significantly closer than I'd have expected. Things to Come is a 1936 British science-fiction film directed by William Cameron Menzies and scripted by... hold on... got to check my notes here... some guy named H. G. Wells. Anyone heard of him?

Things to Come doesn't have a typical narrative. While the movie sort of has a lead actor, his characters (he plays a couple) are really just standing in for an ideology. The real main character is the fictional city of "Everytown" (subtle!) which evolves and changes over the course of a century. The movie is less interested in its human characters than it is in speculating on the arcs of history. This is quite literally Wells's vision of a possible future, augmented with absolutely astonishing sets and visual effects that often left me scrambling to figure out how shots were achieved.

That qualifies as a recommendation, by the way, though I wouldn't worry too much about potential spoilers. This isn't a case where twists and turns are likely to intrigue modern viewers - what endures in Things to Come are the visuals, a handful of fairly impressive predictions, and Wells's accurate assessment of the ongoing cultural struggle that would define our current world.

The movie begins on Christmas in the then-near-future of 1940. A large portion of this section is filled with imagery hammering home contrasting images and music connected to the holiday with signs and newspaper headlines about the oncoming war.

We eventually catch up with a handful of characters, the most important of which is John Cabal, who's horrified by the prospect of a second World War. An associate of his argues against his concerns, predicting war most likely won't come to pass and even if it does, it will be a boon for scientific progress, an idea Cabal rejects. Fighting breaks out soon after, and Everytown is virtually demolished.

John serves in the air force, and we learn he's both courageous and driven by his compassion - he risks his own life attempting to save an enemy pilot. He doesn't seem interested in who's on which side of the conflict, but rather views the world as containing those interested in progress and those rooted to nationalism. So, yeah, more or less right on the money there, Wells.

The war stretches on for decades. We catch up with Everytown in the 1960s, by which time the world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland scourged by a global pandemic. The disease causes its victims to wander mindlessly with outstretched arms - they don't seem to be trying to bite anyone, but visually this strongly resembles the zombie subgenre that would pop up a few decades later. Society's response is even the same: those infected are shot in an attempt to slow transmission. I'd be shocked if this weren't an influence on George Romero.

The disease claims half the world's population before vanishing around 1970, at which point Everytown is ruled by a warlord claiming responsibility for eradicating the disease through the aforementioned policy of shooting the infected (the movie is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this is indeed what ended the pandemic, but it paints the warlord and those like him as barbarians). At any rate, most everyone in Everytown follows the warlord's commands without question, though the town's engineer finds him and his methods distasteful.

This is where John Cabal, now an old man who belongs to an empire of anti-war scientists, inventors, and engineers, appears in a small plane. The warlord takes him prisoner and attempts to force him to build him new warplanes alongside the aforementioned engineer, who sneaks away and flies to inform John's compatriots he's being held captive. They return in massive planes and using mostly non-lethal force subdue the technologically inferior town. John, now freed, declares that they'll build a new world.

At this point, we transition into another montage of development as Everytown is transformed through the decades into a sort of subterranean science-fiction utopia. If you've seen Metropolis (or even if you're just familiar with the design) you'll have a pretty good idea what the city looks like, with the caveat it's all framed in a positive light. Or at least the science is.

See, despite eradicating disease and war, some people see the developments of science as unnatural. These individuals, led by a charismatic leader, push back on advancement and openly call for a return to the life their ancestors lived. Not content to simply live this way themselves, they seek to tear down what the scientists have built as well, beginning with the symbol of ongoing progress, a massive space-gun their civilization's leader plans to use to shoot astronauts into space.

I should note the civilization's leader is the grandson of John Cabal and is played by the same actor, giving the whole thing at least something of a throughline. The movie makes a point of showing him not attempt to silence his opponent - it's important to him that humanity has a choice. That doesn't mean he's willing to sit back while a mob tears his life's work apart however: this whole section transitions into a race to the space-gun to ensure the two astronauts (one of whom is John's daughter) are able to get into space before the angry, regressive mob prevents this. They make it, of course, and the whole thing ends with Cabal spelling out the theme: this is ultimately as much a struggle for humanity's understanding of itself as it is over our destiny. Either we're destined to live and die as animals or ascend to conquer the stars. The choice is ultimately up to us.

It's important to acknowledge while this is fairly close in its prediction of the ongoing struggle between progressive and conservative ideologies, not all the politics or iconography age perfectly. The poetic speeches on the power of science and humanity's destiny among the stars have colonialist overtones. In addition, Wells didn't take into account the way capitalism would factor into the struggle over humanity. As a result, his heroes occasionally feel eerily similar to modern billionaires less interested in advancing science than in ways they can exploit it.

I'm not pointing this out to discredit Wells - I really was impressed with how much he got right - but I do want to acknowledge it's easy to overstate accuracy. This was intended as speculative and in that respect I think it holds up fantastically.

But at the risk of belaboring a compliment, what really stands out nearly nine decades afterward are the effects and designs. The movie is breathtaking in what the filmmakers managed to put on screen. The model work alone is incredible, to say nothing of the matte paintings and what I'm assuming were brilliant applications of rear projection (or perhaps other visual trickery - rear projection rarely looks as clean as some of these shots). Fans of science-fiction will find a great deal they recognize, as well: I saw design elements I suspect were borrowed for both Star Wars and Star Trek, and I already mentioned my suspicions that zombie movies owe a debt to this film.

Looking back, this is clearly drawing inspiration from foundational classics such as Metropolis and A Trip to the Moon (that space gun is pretty similar, albeit updated). And as you'd expect from a 1930s British genre movie, you'll also see elements of German expressionism throughout. 

But this isn't a science-fiction website, it's a Christmas one, so let's talk about the holidays. As I said in my synopsis, the film opens on Christmas and quite blatantly juxtaposes the season with the threat of war. While this certainly wasn't the first movie to play with the contrasting themes of violence and goodwill, I'm struggling to think of anything made earlier I've seen to so explicitly connect it to war and widespread death. Keep in mind, this movie was made prior to World War II (it's largely about anxiety around the possibility of such a conflict, in fact). This predates the animated short, Peace on Earth, by three years, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that were another on the long list of movies inspired by Things to Come.

Contrasting the horrors of war with glad tidings isn't the only purpose of the holidays, however. There's something else going on here that - unlike most of the themes explored in Things to Come - actually is pretty subtle. The beginning of the movie includes religious holiday iconography and music to heighten the sense of impending doom and drive home the idea that violence is inherently evil. But given the overall structure of the film, the presence of Christmas - and more specifically of religious aspects associated with the holiday - serves a second purpose. Keep in mind this is ultimately a movie about progress and societal evolution: in a real sense, the holidays act as a sort of "before" image. The most interesting aspect of Christmas's appearance at the start is its absence at the end of the story. Once Everytown has embraced achievement, humanity is no longer shackled to its customs or religion.

Perhaps I was a little too quick to say this doesn't qualify as a genuine Christmas movie. Under this reading (which, I'll add, aligns with Wells's opinions on religion at the time), the movie is leveraging the holidays for not only tonal and thematic weight but as part of its overall thesis. Granted, that thesis implies we'd be better off without the holidays, but I don't believe that in any way invalidates the significance of the season to the film.

It also places this in the extremely rare subset of atheistic Christmas films, perhaps the only category more elusive in holiday entertainment than Christmas science-fiction, which this also of course lands in.

While I think this technically might qualify as a Christmas movie by my admittedly convoluted definition, outside of the first ten minutes, it certainly won't feel like one to most viewers. In that respect, I wouldn't recommend it to those looking for traditional holiday entertainment. But anyone interested in science-fiction movies from this era should absolutely track this down as soon as possible. It's a truly fascinating film.