British sci-fi is a strange beast. The low-budget nature of the genre has been somewhat suited to the cheaper budgets of British cinema. Similarly, the best sci-fi is ideas-driven and clever, and British writers and audiences are, of course, far more intelligent. To some extent however, the genre has been dominated by television, especially by ‘Doctor Who’. But there have also been many excellent British sci-fi films: ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ (Val Guest, 1961), ‘Alien’ (Ridley Scott, 1979), and ‘Moon’ (Duncan Jones, 2009), to name three. And sci-fi also accounts for one of the first feature films ever made in Britain, ‘A Message From Mars’ (Wallett Waller, 1913), a film where being a Martian consisted of wearing a silly hat.
But despite the range of headwear in ‘A Message From Mars’, the first great British sci-fi film came two decades later in the form of ‘Things To Come’. Directed by the largely unknown William Cameron Menzies, the biggest name attached to the film was H.G. Wells, who adapted the screenplay from his own story, ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’. Set across multiple different time periods – 1940, the 1960s, and the fantastical, futuristic 21st century –the film is loosely structured around a long-lasting, desolation-inducing, apocalyptic war. But Things To Come focuses, not on the war itself, but on the impact on citizens, and stresses both an anti-war message and the importance of scientific innovation, and does so whilst being highly visually inventive about future “things to come”.
What is instantly notable is that the film was made in 1936 (that’s pre-WW2 for you history-buffs). Yet its depiction of the war breaking out in 1940 is extraordinarily, and scarily, accurate. It opens in Christmas 1940, in the British city of London Everytown, with Britain on the brink of war. The film refuses to state who the war is with, but when characters refer to “him … across the water”, it does not require much imagination.
This opening section is superb, due to its eerily melancholic atmosphere. Before war breaks out, it perfectly juxtaposes the festive season with the inevitability of death to come. Carol singers walk past newspaper headlines saying “WORLD ON BRINK OF WAR”, the Christmas decorations lack the same joy as usual, and children play with their new presents of toy tanks. And when war does break out, the scenes of bombing, destruction, and civilian casualties in Everytown are chillingly close to footage of the Blitz in WW2 (even if the tanks shown in battle here resemble Thunderbirds bath-time toys more than actual war machines). Based on this passage alone the film could rightfully be labelled as a masterpiece.
After this truly astonishing opening, the film then jumps forward to a bleak era of desolation – the 1960s. Most of humanity has been wiped out by “The Wandering Sickness”, technology has been forgotten, clothes are no more than tattered rags, medieval bartering has returned, and the world resembles some kind of primitive, feudal nightmare (but women still wear make-up, so that’s OK). This is exactly the kind of post-apocalyptic vision that is the setting for so many modern science-fiction films – Mad Max (George Miller, 1979-2015), for instance. But as far as I can think, Things To Come is the earliest example a post-apocalyptic wilderness being depicted on screen [I would love to know if anyone can think of any earlier ones, so please suggest examples].
From here, the film moves to the 21st century, where a conflict exists between a group who want to send a manned mission to the moon, and a group who want to put an end to scientific progress. If my description of the plot appears a little meandering and shambolic, it is because the plot of the film is meandering and shambolic.
But it is not the plot why this film is of note. It is because it dared to imagine the then-unimaginable, and then dared to design and visualise it on screen. It is notable that with Menzies behind the camera – a man known more for being an art director and production designer rather than a director himself – that the design and visuals of the film are superb, especially for era in which the film was made. The exaggerated use of shadow against blank walls – particularly in the opening section with soldiers marching and giant visualised years passing – is greatly influenced by F.W. Murnau, and successfully creates an ominous, unreal mood. And the 21st century world with its gleaming, smooth, white giant structures has proved highly influential for future depictions of the future.
However, there are sizeable faults with the film, which would typically be a serious impairment to its potential success. The over-arching narrative to the film is tenuous and badly linked, most of the characters are poorly developed and uninvolving, and the drama is somewhat unsatisfying. These problems become particularly true during the final part of the film, when the film feels closer to a lecture about scientific progress.
But to focus on plot, character and drama would be to miss the great successes of the film. Wells was trying to accentuate the importance of ideas and thinking up extraordinary ideas ahead of their time, and Menzies was showing us a fantastical conception of the future, perhaps only previously done on film by Fritz Lang in Metropolis (1927).
It seems strange to advise to try not to care about plot, character, and drama, which are normally so central to whether or not a film “works”, but in Things To Come they are of secondary importance. Instead, Things To Come is a film well ahead of its time in attempting to have a vision, and realising that cinema as a medium can be the best way of portraying it. Things To Come may not have been the first British science-fiction film, but it was the first great British sci-fi film, and one of the first great ones in the world.