A peaceful, unprepared western nation is attacked by an unnamed enemy. The bloody conflict drags on for decades, and civilization is eventually buried beneath miles of smoking rubble. Plague and pestilence shadow the land. A swaggering, fur-clad warlord takes over, a caveman king who rules his nation the way a school bully rules a playground. All, it would seem, is lost.
In light of recent headlines, you could be excused for being less than enthusiastic about a dystopian sci-fi flick foretelling a postwar future that is as bleak as all of the Mad Max pictures combined. But Things to Come doesn't just plunge us into the worst-case scenario. This story is really a self-contained trilogy, beginning with a short film featuring the brief, terribly effective downfall of England as bombs rain from the sky, continuing with a featurette set in the darkest days of the post-apocalypse as a group of moralistic scientists attempts to re-civilize humanity, and ending with a story set in a distant, utopian future of flying cars and silver suits, when a reborn mankind reaches for the stars. Far from offering the typical escapism of sci-fi, Things to Come is a thoughtful look at humanity's eternal battle between emotion and logic and the unfortunate results when we pursue either to its extreme.
The various Star Trek series take place in a utopia where terrestrial war is a thing of the distant past, where everyone cooperates, poverty and prejudice are nonexistent, and your computer can make you a hot-fudge sundae whenever you want one. But the series make it clear that to get there, we had to endure a long, agonizing Third World War that plunged the people of Earth into savage barbarism. Things to Come employs similar reasoning, although its barbarism is even more bloodthirsty, and its utopia is a lot less welcoming than Gene Roddenberry's version. The chilly utopia that comprises the last third of Things to Come is ruled with an iron fist by men of science who have little patience for the bleatings of lefties who question whether man was ever meant to explore the heavens, a far cry from the inclusive "Live long and prosper" secular humanism of Roddenberry's Federation.
I have never understood how the idea of space exploration is so popular with conservatives and so reviled by most lefties; I thought hippies were supposed to be cosmically minded, but the majority of my fellow liberals would apparently prefer to limit the exploration of other realms to whatever they can discover on acid trips and sessions in sensory deprivation tanks. While I am in sympathy with the Left approximately 99 percent of the time, when it comes to rocket ships, I must reluctantly align myself with the right-wing swine. Things to Come is, at its heart, a conservative's picture, placing technological progress over the needs of the individual, stacking the deck so that the forces of humanism seem weak and anarchistic compared with the imperious, stylish Men of Vision who drag mankind, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the future. The film makes an annoyingly persuasive case that in order to overcome our own worst instincts, we'll have to leave behind many of the characteristics that make us most human.
Released in 1936, Things to Come was in some respects eerily prescient, forecasting modern airplanes, humankind's arrival on the moon, and the aerial bombings of World War II—although fortunately, World War II ended up considerably shorter than the 30 years the film predicted. It was the most visionary and lavishly produced sci-fi picture since Fritz Lang's Metropolis, thanks largely to H.G. Wells, who wrote the script and oversaw every aspect of the production. If the dialogue is often clunky (and lordy, is it ever), the film more than compensates with breathtakingly effective visuals and commendably hammy, gusto-grabbing performances from Raymond Massey (in a dual role) and Ralph Richardson (as the warlord). Things to Come isn't gentle, heart-warming sci-fi of the Trek variety, but ours is not a gentle, heart-warming age. Sadly, Things to Come has perhaps never been so timely.
Things to Come screens at the Orange County Museum of Art, Lyon Auditorium, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, ext. 204. Fri., 7 p.m. $4-$6.