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Things to Come (1936) April 15th, 2020

As I write this we’re in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic. Despite calling this blog ‘The Quarantined Critic’ it’s a subject I’ve neglected because it doesn’t often come up organically. Maybe that’s an excuse. Maybe it’s just more fun to watch and write about movies than to think about our collective circumstances. I’ll gladly take an hour and 47 minute detour from reality with Rango over listening to an egotist hypocritically undermine states rights and spread medical misinformation any day. Yet I’ve always sneered when someone calls movies “escapism”. I usually take it as an insulting reductive dismissal of cinema’s transcendent potential. As if the higher purpose of a film like Parasite is helping you forget for a couple of hours about how you can’t afford to pay your bills. Did David Lynch count on word of mouth spreading news that The Elephant Man was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon? Is a distracting barrage of light and sound lulling the great unwashed into gulping down buckets of America’s surplus corn crop the best Lawrence of Arabia can hope to be? Clearly I continue sneering, but perhaps zealously appreciating cinema is not so different of an escape in the end.

Cue H.G. Wells’ to take a huge organic dump on my blog. His 1936 epic Things to Come is an exercise in predictive storytelling. The plot takes place in small vignettes chronicling important moments in the next 100 years of human history. A virus called the walking sickness infects half the human population across the globe. No one who gets sick survives. Warlords take control of small populaces and begin shooting the wandering sick as they shamble into town like zombies (probably one of the earliest examples of the ‘zombie walk’ in film, I didn’t research this but George Romero didn’t set the trope in stone until 1968).

These colonies of uninfected struggle to survive until a man in a futuristic flying machine lands nearby spreading news of a utopian (I hesitate to use that word because I know it’s not what Wells would’ve wanted) civilization striving in the aftermath. There, having set aside all the faults of individualism, nationalism and religion a council of scientists and pilots pursue technological progress for the greater good of all mankind. Even if that greater good comes with a cost, gassing innocents and making unilateral decisions in conflict with the will of the people. Yeah, Wells is a legendary artist adept at conveying concepts and ideas yet easily falls in the trap of mischaracterizing his idyllic socialism as fascism.

In the end, the film lectures the audience about the choice between reactive conservatism and active progressivism. Either mankind can continue to fight over our comfortable individual nationalism and religion or we can join together as a species and move as one with a will towards the stars and beyond. And here I sit, soaked in the stinky 84 year old predictions of a visionary.

I’m confounded by the pervasiveness of the very human qualities Wells encourages us to leave behind. The individual hubris of people who still flout medical advice by having parties. The congregations hugging in their pews because their God’s blood exempts them from exposure. The President continuing his ugly and transparent display of nationalism by rebranding COVID19 as ‘the Chinese virus’.

Things to Come left me exhausted not because it’s preachy and wooden but because it didn’t let me escape. The genre defining art design, the incredible special effects and the thrill of it all weren’t strong enough for me to ignore the topical parallels and fully immerse myself in escapism. No, denial won’t cure what ails us.

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