Friday, October 05, 2012

Free Friday Flick: Things to Come - science conquers all

This week's recommended science fiction movie is the British 1936 spectacular Things to Come. The story is adapted from HG Wells' novel The Shape of Things to Come. 70-year-old Wells wrote the screenplay himself, incorporating some ideas from his non-fiction book The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind, an overview of global economics and sociology.

The movie follows the residents of Everytown over the course of a century as the population is first decimated by biological weapons in a devastating decades-long global war and then rebuilt into a shining future city by technocrats. It depicts a triumph of science and engineering that that brings order and prosperity, and even opens mankind's way into space.

The movie was was produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzes, and stars Raymond MasseyRalph Richardson, and Margaretta Scott.

It apparently was not widely popular at the time it was released, perhaps because the public was all too aware that real war in Europe was looming on the horizon. The filmmakers were certainly aware of that possibility. Ralph Richardson's depiction of the thug-like Boss was based on the dictator Benito Mussolini, causing Things to Come to be banned in Italy.

While the acting is rather stiff at times, the film is worth watching if only for the still-stunning visual design. It's a science fiction classic.

Well's original novel is also worth reading. As a future history it includes a fair amount of 1930s racism and sexism, and the envisioned world state where individualism has been "overcome" seems nightmarish. But I do find it interesting that Wells imagined a future where crude biological engineering eventually becomes common-place. As he describes it:
In 2047 Homer Lee Pabst published his remarkable researches on the effect upon chromosomes of certain gases derived from the old Sterilizing Inhalation made from Permanent Death Gas. These gases are known now as Pabst's Kinetogens, and there is a whole series of them. Their general effect is to produce mutations of various types. They bring about, abundantly and controllably, a variability in life which has hitherto been caused only with comparative rarity by cosmic radiations. By 2050 the biological world was confronted by a score of absolutely new species of plants and--queer first-fruits in the animal world--by two new and very destructive species of rodent. The artificial evolution of new creatures had come within the range of human possibility.
Not only are new species created in this future society, but extinct species are restored. 

In this instance, Wells thought too small. The revolution in genetic engineering arrived 75 years before he predicted, and techniques we use today allow genes to be modified both specifically and subtilely, as compared to the crude introduction of mutations using radiation and mutagenic chemicals that was still fairly new science in the 1930s. 

Perhaps Wells was familiar with the work of Herman Muller (published in 1927), demonstrating X-rays could be used to introduce mutations in fruit flies. But his description of "Pabst's Kinetogens" sounds more like the research of Charlotte Auerbach, who discovered the mutagenic properties of mustard gas. Her work was not published until the 1940s, so perhaps Wells was prescient about the direction of biological research, even if he was a century off in his prediction.

You can watch Things to Come for free on YouTube.

You can also purchase a copy of the colorized version of Things to Come or a copy of the original novel The Shape of Things to Come at (affiliate link).

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