To help promote Arisia, a Boston area convention held in January, volunteers have launched "Arisia TV." It's a website where they hope to have lots of SF content that will be of interest to fans and which will, not so incidentally, promote the con. As a long-time participant, I was asked to do a series of brief vignettes on SF films focusing on the theme "The Five Essential Science Fiction Movies." In my introduction to the series, I pointed out that such lists are interesting but are more points for discussion rather than definitive judgments.
Of course I couldn't resist the challenge, and my choices were a mix of the obvious and the quirky. I limited myself to no more than one film per decade so that once I picked "Forbidden Planet," all those other great '50s films were out of the running. Fortunately it's only an exercise—
I'd start with the George Melies 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon." It's a film that still delights more than a century later, from the chorus line seeing off the rocket to the Man in the Moon getting it right in the eye. Of course, the most important of all the silent feature-length SF films—
So that leaves the fifth film. The general consensus—
The story, based on the book by H. G. Wells, takes place in "Everytown"—
Future history then veers off from the world we know, as the war continues not for a few years but for a few decades. By the 1960s Everytown is more rubble than city, and the "government" consists of the Boss (Ralph Richardson), a petty tyrant who promises peace while continuing the fight. The "enemy" is no longer a foreign power, but the people in the rubble of the next community. What's fascinating about the sequence is its pre-atomic view of a post-apocalyptic world. There's a struggle with the outbreak of the mysterious "Wandering Sickness," a plague for which there is no cure but death. Finally it subsides and people can start rebuilding. No one is worrying about radiation, yet they are pessimistic about the restoration of civilization. The Boss wants airplanes, but there's no "petrol" for fuel, and young mechanic Richard Gordon (Derek DeMarney) doesn't think the planes they have will ever work. He bleakly tells his girlfriend that humanity will never return to the skies. This is even more frightening than the "Wandering Sickness." It's the notion that society can be so badly damaged in war that we will actually regress to more primitive conditions, unable to repair the destruction.
Of course that's the signal for the arrival of a plane, flown by a much older John Cabal, representative for Wings Over the World. Cabal's arguments with the Boss are fascinating in no small part because we know we're supposed to be on Cabal's side since he represents peace, progress, and technology—
The story jumps forward once more, now to 2036. Cabal's great-grandson Oswald (also Massey) is now a leader of an Eden-like Everytown. Director William Cameron Menzies devotes several shots to how it was constructed and transformed. Civilization has not only come back; it has greatly advanced. For viewers in 1936, this glimpse of a world a hundred years hence must have been truly amazing. Yet all is not well. There is grumbling about plans to send a rocket to the moon. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) goes on worldwide television to rouse the populace against the "space gun" arguing, "What good is all this progress?"
This last part focuses on whether the mob or the scientists will prevail, with the film's conclusion going to Oswald--who would sound almost cold-blooded if we didn't consider him the story's hero. He allows that people will die as mankind moves into space, but what's important is progress and the advancement of knowledge. When his colleague asks when we get to rest and enjoy ourselves, Oswald sardonically notes that rest—
This is intelligent SF filmmaking that focuses on ideas as much—
"Things to Come" is not some musty relic relying on its past reputation, but an important part of the pantheon of SF cinema. As with any classic or overly literary novel, it may take some time to get in sync with the story, but it is worth the effort. Serious fans should sit down to a showing of "Things to Come" with the same attention with which they consider the issues of "2001," "Blade Runner" or "Gattaca." This isn't cheese. This is filet mignon.