H. G. Wells’ Utopia on Film

Before the new epoch in science fiction films was ushered in by George Lucas’ Star Wars, it was the 1936 futurist extravaganza Things to Come that captured my boyhood imagination. Thanks to the Criterion Collection’s 2013 release, viewers can now see the film with a clarity that has not been enjoyed by audiences since its original cinematic debut.

This movie adaptation of H. G. Wells’ utopian prophecy was in some ways the beginning of my own infatuation with the ideal society that would be achieved through planning and technology. Looking back on Things to Come one cannot help but compare its aesthetics to contemporary fascist and communist propaganda. The more bombastic segments are a  fantasy version of Triumph of the Will. It is not surprising that the English writer found much to admire in the totalitarian systems. And while the more egregious aspects of utopianism were (for a time) discredited by Hitler and Stalin, the Wellsian “faith in the future” is still very much with us.

I have commented at length on Wells’ socialistic vision in my essay “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” in Belief and Understanding. Here it will suffice to quote Geoffrey O’Brien, whose commentary accompanies the Criterion DVD. For all it’s short-comings

Things to Come may finally be a more reliable prediction than we would like to think. It is not hard to imagine a future world utterly regulated and constrained by technology; we are, in fact, nearly there in many respects, even if without the utopian side effects that Wells liked to anticipate.

Apart from political prognostication, Wells’ film remains a visual masterpiece. The sets and special effects – from the scenes of wartime England undergoing aerial bombardment (which must’ve seemed shocking to audiences at the time) to the magnificent super city of tomorrow – are impressive spectacles. Even now it is easy to understand why people succumb to the utopian temptation, a belief in materialistic salvation, when their only hope is in the here-and-now.

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