'Things to Come' (1936)

In a previous article, there was a discussion of ’50s sci-fi films that left an indelible impression on this callow youth. The one thing all of these movies had in common was their wonderful qualities as vividly realized nightmares—they were, in short, high-tech horror films with a veneer of "scientific" credibility (and "scientific" is used quite loosely).

Them!, for example, skitters along in blithe disregard of the square-cube law, which dictates a limit to growth for biological systems—the first time one of the giant ants took a step it would tumble ass-over-teakettle, converting itself into a rubble pile. The producers of Them! either didn’t know or didn’t care about that particular inconvenient truth. They were out to make an exciting horror film, and they succeeded.

But there were some science fiction films that at least acknowledged operational science in their scripts. Here are the few which I have personally encountered. If any of you out there have others you’d like to add (along with good reasons for inclusion), please let us know.

Disclaimer: Films listed here may be terrible, but they must have at least one scientifically interesting idea, however badly they may exploit that concept.


~ The Invisible Man (1933)
Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers, William Harrigan, Una O’Connor
BW-71 mins.

If you accept the existence of something called monocane which can make you disappear (but also turn you psychotic), then the way the film proceeds is entirely logical.

~Things to Come (1936)
Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, George Sanders, Terry-Thomas, Abraham Sofaer
BW-92 to 108 mins.

H. G. Wells’ prescription for happiness: give up war and national sovereignty and turn things over to the Technocrats. That’s the film’s dubious premise, effectively presented but marred by lackluster acting. Still, this flick deserves credit for adopting an attitude and sticking with it, as well as its overall look. The shrill finale, however, is almost unendurable.

~Destination Moon (1950)
John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Woody Woodpecker
C-92 mins.

"Claim it, Doc! I’m your witness—claim it officially."
"By the grace of God, and in the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind."

"The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills, and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government, nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job. And American industry must get to work, now, just as we did in the last war!"
"I know one thing—unless these pills work, space travel isn’t going to be … popular."

With technical advice and script input from Robert Heinlein, this one was bound to work. The film is as scientifically accurate as it was possible to be at the mid-point of the last century; only the then-state-of-the-art FX, which look primitive today, and the nuclear rocket, still not possible, only marginally detract from the movie’s verisimilitude. Woody Woodpecker, Dick Wesson’s lunkheaded character, and the audience all get entertaining infodumps about rocket science. The charming idea that private industry, rather than government, is best suited to develop a space program is one whose validity has only recently recurred to some.

To be continued.

Mike Gray