It's Christmas in Everytown at the end of 1940, and the citizens are planning their festivities, yet there is disaster brewing. The newspaper headlines scream threats of war, and for businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) there can be no avoiding the coming conflict. His friend Passworthy (Edward Chapman) is not so convinced and claims that threats of war never come true, but when Christmas night arrives, they hear the sound of cannons and rush out into the street. There are searchlights crisscrossing the night sky, and the rumble of enemy aircraft: Cabal was right...
Funny how predictions of the future always say things will get worse before they can get better, and so it is with this adaptation of H.G. Wells' view of where the world was heading for the next hundred years. In fact, Wells had sweated over an adaptation himself for a couple of years without bearing much fruit, and eventually Lajos Biro had to be brought in to write a script that could be filmed, and the result did not impress the great writer. But you could have predicted that.
And yet, the film does capture Wells' didactic quality in its curious mix of pessimism and optimism. Much has been made of the accuracy of the date of the next world war, only one year out, but after the sequence of Everytown being bombed to near oblivion, peace does not arrive in 1945 and the war drags on. The special effects are impressive for their day, including a shot of a cinema destroyed, just to hit home to the audiences of the day the danger they faced - and look out for the man in the top hat angrily shaking his fist at the bombers before he is blown to Kingdom Come.
This film could well be seen as one of the original post-apocalypse movies, even if the situation does improve over the century depicted. The world is brought to its knees by the war, and even when it finishes sometime in the sixties there's little hope of a speedy recovery. Then the plague, the "Wandering Sickness" falls upon the population, like a twentieth century Black Death that kills half the people on the planet. One man takes drastic action to stop it spreading, the man who will soon be known as Boss (Ralph Richardson) when he takes over Everytown, or what's left of it. He is the closest thing the story has to a personification of villainy.
Boss has an isolationist view of his society but like all the major players in this also has a yen for flight. So what do you know? Who should emerge from the sky but Cabal, looking older but no less wise for all that, in his newfangled aeroplane. The whole notion of flight is what fuels progress in the film, as if getting away from the Earth is the only possible outcome of the advances of science. Boss doesn't take kindly to Cabal's appearance in his territory, setting up the events that lead to the final part of the tale in 2036 where the population of a technologically superior world, where war has ceased, are protesting about the march of progress, specifically the new space programme. Nothing can stop man's evolution is the message, once we learn to put aside petty differences, meaning an unexpectedly idealistic ending after all that doom and gloom. You still feel as though you're being lectured, but Things to Come - the most expensive British production to that time - looks undeniably impressive even if it doesn't sound it. Music by Arthur Bliss.