Diversity in SF Film: Things to Come (1936)

21 Dec

This is my third post on diversity in Science Fiction films. I started with Metropolis (1927), and then skipped two decades to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Largely, my reason was that there weren’t any options for the 30s or 40s available on Netflix. Apparently, there aren’t very many SF films within that twenty year period.[1] I’ve decided to skip Frankenstein  although the novel is one of the first, if not the first, SF novels — because the classic film has more in common with horror than SF. I feel much the same about King Kong. Therefore, I settled on Things to Come (1936), which is based upon the H.G. Wells’ novel published in 1933 entitled The Shape of Things to Come. I know I’m risking a bit of confusion by going backward here, but I felt it was too important to skip. Also:  keep in mind that I don’t think I read the novel. At least, I don’t remember having read it.[2] So… Things to Come.

Things to Come (1936) -- H.G. Wells

The story first centers around two white men with families in a town called ‘Everytown’ which looks and feels quite a bit like ’30s London. It’s Christmas, and our main characters are talking about the possibility of war. It’s the standard conversation. One man goes on about the ravages of war while another brings up how it’ll be great for the economy. Everytown is attacked. No enemy is named. However, the depiction of the war is almost exactly like Pearl Harbor and the Blitz (remember this is pre-WWII). Bring on poison gas and air raids. The city is demolished.

The war continues through 1960, and then in 1966 we have the ‘walking sickness’ which looks an awful lot like a zombie epidemic. By 1967, the world is post-apocalyptic and war-torn. Half of the population are killed by the disease or by those shooting victims of the walking sickness. War continues until 1970. ‘Everytown’ has devolved into an English medieval / post-apocalyptic setting. They still have mechanical things, but nothing new is invented. Things are only recycled or fixed by the relatively few self-trained mechanics (this part reminded me of a much less misogynistic Mad Max). The city is ruled by The Boss, and Everytown is at war with the Hill People over petrol and coal. We finally settle on a character:  the Mechanic and his wife. Mrs. Mechanic says, “Hey! I think I heard a plane this morning.” Mr. Mechanic says, “Nah. You’re nuts. We’ll never fly again.” Boss goes to the Mechanic and demands airplanes. The Mechanic says, “Nope. No can do.” Boss says, “We’ll take your wife prisoner. That’ll get you motivated.” And then an airplane lands. The pilot says he’s a representative from Wings of the World — some sort of scientific collective/commune. The relationship doesn’t get a good start. Boss sees the world as “Me First,” and Pilot sees the world on a broader “Humanity First” scale. Oh, and incidentally, science rules and will save the planet.

Boss tells the Pilot to make his planes work. Pilot says, “Nope” and is imprisoned. Mrs. Boss visits Pilot and says, “Hey. I can read. I know the outside world exists. I want to see it. Tell me about your world.” She’s in the middle of trying to negotiate a treaty of sorts when Boss shows up and trashes the whole thing. Mechanic tells Boss he can’t fix the planes without Pilot’s help. Pilot helps. Meanwhile, Boss invades the Hill People to get gas. And then… Pilot’s buddies arrive. Boss sends his five planes up against the giant Wings of the World ships and attempts to use prisoners as hostages. The WotW ships drop ‘Peace Gas’ which tranquilizes everyone in Everytown. Then they parachute in and take over. The city is rebuilt. Apparently, this takes until 2036.

The interesting thing about 2036 is that it very much resembles the inside of a fancy Las Vegas hotel. For whatever reason, humankind has opted for living underground because they can light up the insides of buildings and recycle air (hmmm). There are glass elevators and cars that travel on both the top and bottoms of elevated roads. Everything is run on electricity or magnetics.  There’s a new man in charge who happens to be the grandson of Pilot. Men wear skirts. So do women. Everything is white (yes, even all the people). But hey, peace reigns along with science. People live long, healthy lives (the white people, anyway). It is at this point a “down with progressiveness!” movement crops up led by a sculptor. Because hey, they’re planning on sending people to the moon, and we can’t have that for… reasons![3] They try to tear down the space gun which is to shoot the kids into space and around the moon. The kids are shot into space ahead of schedule. All the while, their parents are delivering a moving speech about the future and humanity and how we must move on to the next conquest of knowledge. The End.

Some interesting things happen in this film. Sure, women are mainly wives, girlfriends, victims, and/or mothers. However, there are several times when women play key roles in the story. Let’s start with Mrs. Boss. She’s the one who tries to talk Boss into moving forward and joining up with the WotW Pilot. She says some interesting things to Pilot. She says that women have underutilized imagination and passion. She tells Pilot this is why she wishes she were a man. In the end, it’s the leader’s daughter who pushes to go to the moon. In fact, she does go. Mind you, she takes her boyfriend, but the first manned mission around the moon has a woman pilot. This is 1936, folks, and we see women’s issues being included in a story of humanity — mind you, persons of color aren’t included and neither are any other minority groups. I suspect that this is largely because Wells was a vocal supporter of women’s rights. The makers of the film did try to incorporate Wells’s ideas into the film whenever they could.

Of course, that will vanish in another two decades…

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[1] Not in the western world, anyway. Of course, there was Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), and Things to Come (1936). There were also the Superman and Flash Gorden serials, too, but apparently there wasn’t much else. At least, occording to my limited research. I’ll admit I’m not being super thorough.

[2] I read quite a few of H.G.Wells’s novels when I was in eighth or nineth grade. Sadly, other than The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, I don’t remember them much.

[3] Hey, we all know sculptors are evil and against progressiveness. I suspect it’s all the bronze they snort or something. He never really explains why shooting people into space is a problem — other than science is suddenly evil and children are being offered up to space gun experiments or something. Yeah. Apparently future sculptors don’t make much sense. But then, neither do his parents, the American Tea Party.

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