The future of Things to Come is so dreadful yet ultimately triumphant that it's easy to see why the film left such deep impressions on audiences.
Things to Come forecasts a Depression-era world shattered by endless war, ignorance, anarchy and disease until rescued by science. Directed by William Cameron Menzies but overseen by Wells, moviegoers thrilled to unforgettable images of war machines, flying fortresses and form-fitting airsuits.
Constantly on set, Wells, author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, was intent that his utopian ideal of a world ruled by reason, which today seems more like scientific fascism, remained intact. Wells even met with Josef Stalin in 1934, telling the Soviet leader that he should "put all your power in the hands of geeks,'' says film commentator David Kalat.
"If Wells wrote today, he'd be writing for Wired,'' Kalat says.
Seen now through the gauze of the future it envisioned, bits and pieces of truth peek through: Air raids and gas warfare are predicted for 1940 (frightening to pre-war audiences of the 1930s); the spread of a "Wandering Sickness'' is seen in 1966 (one female plague victim is shot dead on screen, echoing today's shoot-all-zombies ethos of The Walking Dead); and hundreds of air ships fill the air as the technocrats finally take over (targeted drones, anyone?).
"We now can put the world in order,'' proclaims actor Raymond Massey of the new ruling class. "Wings over the world, and a new world begins.''
The film ends a century in the then-future, 2036, with mankind living in antiseptic underground cities and debating whether to launch a first mission to the moon. Wells' choice is clear. The film concludes with the line, 'The universe or nothing at all. Which shall it be?''
"No one who sees it ever forgets it,'' writes essayist Geoffrey O'Brien, calling Things to Come "a trial shot into the future that speaks to us now from a rapidly receding past.''
"It is a movie about war and plague and yet it is completely hopeful and optimistic,'' says Kalat. Though the film flopped upon release, it is "fondly remembered. If H.G. Wells were alive today, I'd hope that he'd be very proud indeed.''
David Colton, USA TODAY