The twenties and thirties were full of paranoid visions of the future. In Britain, Aldous Huxley gave his readers chilling images of the technologies humanity would use to dehumanize itself in Brave New World. He tapped into a fear that had spread across the world. In Russia, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We had presented a similar vision; in Germany, Fritz Lang had put it on film in Metropolis. And just a few years later, William Cameron Menzies would adapt another master of science fiction, H.G. Wells, to create a future that was every bit as horrifying, every bit as lifeless, and every bit as joyless as the others. And he did all this while saying, Boy oh boy! Doesn’t this look great? Imagine if John the Savage had been the villain of Brave New World and World State had been the heroes, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Things to Come.
The film opens up in some things that were immediately to come, as the spectre of another world war hangs over “Everytown.” It’s also the strongest section, full of striking expressionist scenes like a young boy fantasizing about military life as the long shadows of soldiers march behind him, or the declaration of war as seen through extreme close-ups of the crowd’s face under heavily stylized lighting, cut so kinetically it wouldn’t be out of place in a modern music video. Menzies was one of the all-time great art directors: in fact, the term itself exists because the producers of Gone with the Wind needed to figure out how to give him his due in the credits. All the same, his form is often at odds with his content in this sequence. It becomes a little difficult to take the horror of a bombed-out city seriously when you see the guy dressed up like the Monopoly man shaking his fists at the sky. And when the war heats up, a pilot’s selfless sacrifice of his gas mask to a little girl is blunted by Raymond Massey’s performance as his mate. He never even seems to think of giving up his own mask, and when he leaves behind his gun so the pilot can put himself out of his misery, what’s supposed to be an act of kindness is undermined by the careless way he tosses it on the ground. And these kinds of tonal dissonances are only going to get worse as the movie goes on.
Decades later, the war has finally ended, but it’s taken human civilization with it. Chemical weapons have caused a plague of “wandering sickness,” and its symptoms make Things to Come a kind of prototype for the “zombie apocalypse” subgenre. There’s hints of the Mad Max-style take on post-apocalyptic society too, as a kind of feudal system has been scraped together from the remains of the modern world, with striking images like a Rolls-Royce being used as a horse cart. Then Massey turns back up, and the dystopianism of Wells and Menzies’ vision becomes apparent. Massey’s trying to rebuild the earth as part of the pacifist Wings Across the World organization, but he resembles nothing so much as the personification of the British Empire. He marches in like he owns the place and immediately sets to work conquering everything in sight. He doesn’t put it that way, of course. He merely wants to bring about peace and bring the government in line with his own enlightened principles. He must be right, after all. He has better bombs. Like many victims of international interventionism, Ralph Richardson, as “the Boss,” protests that he runs an independent, sovereign state. Massey coldly replies, “Yes, we must talk about that. We don’t approve of independent sovereign states.”
Massey’s performance certainly doesn’t make him seem any less like a snooty British administrator, either. With his gaunt features and flat affect, he seems far more zombielike than any of the victims of the wandering sickness. He’s less like the hero and more like the type of character who gets his head lopped off by a Zulu warrior. The Boss describes Wings Over the World as “great ugly, black, inhuman chaps. Half like machines.” Like most of the strawmen characters in the film, he’s not wrong. The colonial mindset extends to Menzies’ portrayal of the post-apocalyptic Everytown, too. His vision of a degraded West looks an awful lot like the stereotypes of the Middle East, all bearded men in fur hats riding around on horseback, utility belts strapped across their chests. As the “warlord”s wife, Margaretta Scott looks like she walked right out of an Orientalist harem scene, dripping with Arabic jewelry.
Menzies clearly knew how to design a film, and while the glorious future he presents in his next flash-forward is never less than impeccably and unforgettably designed, it also looks unlivable and subtly terrifying. We get a first glimpse of his dystopian utopia in the offices of Wings Over the World, lined up geometrically, looking every bit as inhuman as the Boss describes them, at an unnervingly perfect cube. After their triumph over the forces of the Boss, there’s a seemingly endless montage of the forces of progress remaking the world. There’s no identifiable human characters here, just nightmarishly clanking, pounding machines of unidentifiable purpose, all set to a menacing, Wagnerian score. When we can tell what these machines are doing, they’re engaged in great works of environmental destruction: one horrible engine topped with pincers like a spider’s legs blows holes through the earth. The finished city is completely detached from nature. Buildings tower claustrophobically, blocking out the sun. The only visible plant life are some trees planted along the stacked walkways. Even they look unnatural, taken from their natural habitat, pruned into unnatural but geometric shapes, more closely resembling the plastic trees from a toy train set than anything organic. An old man disdainfully describes primitive humanity living “half out of doors” because “they never seemed to realize that we could light the interiors of our houses with sunshine of our own.” (Never mind that the march of science Menzies fetishizes so much has since proven that natural light is necessary for a healthy life.)
Everything in Menzies’ future is unnatural. The old man sits down on an uncushioned couch made out of a transparent glasslike material. High tech, sure – but comfortable? Even the clothes are uncomfortable: triangular shoulder pads might be mathematically perfect, but can you imagine having to walk around in them? This whole world is sterile, flat, and grey, and not just because it’s shot in black and white. It all looks like it could use Monsieur Hulot to bust it up a little. The people are flat and grey too. The old man describes humor as a long-extinct coping mechanism. The actors flatly intone about decisions they make from heartless logic. The movie’s villains may be violent and cruel, but they end up becoming sympathetic by default – at least Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke are recognizably human! Hardwicke plays Theotocopulos, a character who’s immediately marked as untrustworthy by his comfortable clothes and his profession as a “master craftsman,” a creator of painstaking, personal work in an assembly-line society. Hilariously, after creating this skin-crawling nightmare world, Menzies can’t think of any plausible reasons for Theotocopulos to revolt against it; all he can do is recite meaningless platitudes like, “What is this progress? What is the good of all this progress onward and onward? We demand a halt! We demand a rest!”
Let’s talk about that word, “progress,” because Menzies seems to be awfully fond of it – you could make it a drinking game. Take a shot every time someone mentions “progress,” and your BAC would be somewhere around 100 by the halfway mark. Menzies seems to be conflating social and technological progress. If anything, he seems to view one as a substitute for the other – I’ve already said a lot, maybe too much, about his Anglocentric definition of civilization, but this future paradise seems awfully white and patriarchal. The thing is, they aren’t the same. Social progress moves toward a positive goal, but scientific progress is neutral at best. As Raymond Massey preaches all the benefits of technological development to the people of the ruined Everytown, he neglects one blindingly obvious fact: without technology, they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place! The wandering sickness was an engineered plague, and the more mundane destruction we see is the result of the then-new technology of aerial warfare. The script briefly pays lip service to this contradiction when Massey promises to “exploit all these giant possibilities of science… that have been squandered hitherto upon war and senseless competition.” But the intended purposes of science don’t change how they’re used. Do you think Mendel predicted Mengele?
And the intervening years have made Menzies’ techno-fetishism increasingly hard to swallow. Over the following decade, the social engineering and mechanical efficiency Things to Come tries so hard to sell us on would be used for a genocide so devastating it’s considered blasphemous to even compare it to any other. A few years later, great, progress-minded scientists would create atomic technologies that threatened to end life on earth forever. And now climate change makes that threat more of a certainty every day, all thanks to the engines that power the factories and airplanes Menzies portrays so worshipfully. Like many of his generation, Menzies believed scientific development would inevitably lead humanity to peace and prosperity. But history keeps right on proving that for every step progress takes us that direction, humanity takes two to use technology for new and innovative forms of war and deprivation. There’s something instinctually wrong about Menzie’s futuristic aesthetic. Maybe that instinct’s based on the knowledge that there’s something equally wrong about the optimism it represents.
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