“Things to Come” and the Quest for “Progress”

Things to Come is a seminal science fiction film released in 1936 that depicts a future of apocalyptic warfare that causes a zombifying plague called “the Wandering Sickness,” ultimately reducing Europe to its primordial stages of civilizational development.  Throughout the film, science and “progress” in general are polarizing topics amongst all levels of society from the common people to the highest governmental officials.  Some view scientists as “the last trustees of civilization,” while other characters embody the apprehension towards scientific research has been represented in countless other films and writings of the interwar period such as MetropolisThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Russell’s “Icarus, or, the Future of Science.”  The film concludes in the year 2036 with a space launch, ultimately made to represent man’s incessant need to ascend to “conquest beyond conquest.”

The thing that I found most interesting about this film was also the factor that differentiates it from the works above that discuss a fear of science: Things to Come does not definitively extol or denounce scientific progress.  Rather, it documents the existence and relative validity of each side of this argument.  In the midst of the centuries of warfare that grip Europe, science is consistently viewed as both the cause of society’s woes and the only thing that can solve them.  The high-tech planes that allowed warring nations to drop mustard gas caused immense destruction, and yet the inhabitants of Everytown still believe that the only way to truly end the war is to repair those planes and finish obliterating their enemies.  In the film, new civilizations are created only by the destruction of their predecessors.  Because scientific “progress” is the only means of accomplishing this, Things to Come simultaneously depicts science as the best and worst tool for societal development.  However, war, plague, science, and every other major element in this development is a slave to the attitude of “manifest destiny” that is portrayed as intrinsic to the human psyche.

Do you think that the constant quest for petrol in Everytown is merely a plot device, or do you think that H.G. Wells was using this fixation to predict that oil would become the center of future armed conflicts?

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