A Beautiful Release of a Flawed Classic
Things to Come is one hell of a movie, an ambitious, audacious polemic that strives to pack all of humanity’s future history into 96 minutes. Penned by H.G. Wells (based upon his book The Shape of Things to Come), it’s not a conventional story as we are accustomed to, but it’s a good representation of the books Wells was producing later in life, works he called “future history”.
There are few notable characters and barely a relationship among them worth remembering; people appear onscreen for the purpose of representing a particular point of view, then exit when their work is done. As Geoffrey O’Brien writes in his excellent essay accompanying the CD: “Small wonder if, by the last reel, audiences felt they had drifted into some peculiar sort of illustrated lecture”.
Illustrated lecture or no, what’s most striking to the modern viewer, perhaps, is that the ultimate fate of all mankind, a sort of techno-utilitarian homogeneity presented as a utopian deliverance from war and disease, looks little like Utopia and a very much like an underground shopping mall from Hell. With its ranks of shuffling citizens dwarfed by the technology that controls them in their underground, airtight cities, with a cabal of self-appointed technocrats ruling the masses for their own good, it feels like something out of a ‘60s sci-fi dystopia by Philip K. Dick or John Brunner.
Despite all this, though, the film is a bloody masterpiece.
Why? Because Things to Come dares to attempt something that no film before and few films since have even tried: enormous in scope, it tries to encompass the whole of mankind’s foreseeable future into a single comprehensible narrative. Its cast is literally every human being on earth. The only other movie I can think of that even attempts such a long view is 2001: A Space Odyssey, although my knowledge is far from comprehensive. Besides that, it’s often visually striking, and for a movie from 1936 to appear visually stunning nowadays is quite an achievement. There are dozens of memorable images throughout the film which will likely be carried away by the viewer for a long time to come.
Let’s start with scope. The story begins in 1940, which at the time of the film’s release was still four years in the future. The world is at the brink of war. War duly arrives, and lasts for decades, until pretty much all that’s left are bands of struggling survivors. These unfortunates must face up to the plague of “the wandering sickness”—think zombies without the unfortunate the unfortunate flesh-eating tendency—while fighting among themselves in Stone Age conditions. A local warlord carries on something like a dapper, British Dennis Hopper in Waterworld. Things are grim. The first hour of this movie, then, is pretty much one downer after another.
What ultimately saves mankind is the hard work and dedication of a few visionaries, engineers and scientists led by a large-helmeted Raymond Massey, who descends from the heavens to save the masses. In the final, least satisfying portion of the movie, the viewer is offered a guided tour of Utopia, which frankly appears kind of dull. (Cue Talking Heads’ “Heaven”: “Heaven is a place / A place where nothing, nothing ever happens”.) More than dull, it looks frightening, perhaps unintentionally so: a place of nameless conformity and orderly, existentialist ennui.
Not everyone is smitten with the new order, and one example of resistance is offered as a kind of cautionary tale: an artist, played by Cedric Hardwicke, who rails against the system and generally appears cranky, dissatisfied, and entirely sympathetic. That last was probably not intended by the filmmakers—the artist was intended as an example of the bad old days when people allowed their passions and greed to rule them, but at this remove (and maybe in 1936, too), he is easily the most memorable character in this future society, and we have a natural tendency to root for him.
Whatever one makes of the message here, the visual impact of the film is undeniable (aided by a bombastic score from Arthur Bliss). The war scenes are suitably devastating, and the miniature work is effective and impressive given the resources of the time, while post-apocalyptic humanity struggles for survival amid artfully designed ruins.
More powerful still are the images from Wells’ future world, when the “brotherhood of efficiency” has succeeded in creating soaring spaces filled with machinery so vast as to be almost abstract in nature, all of which effectively conveys a sense of sterile power and harnessed human inventiveness. Perhaps most iconic is the enormous “space gun”, designed to shoot explorers to the moon, which serves as the site of the film’s climactic scene.
Unsurprisingly, the Criterion Collection has done a masterful job with this release. The picture is gorgeous and the sound as clear as can be expected, with Bliss’s score sounding vibrant and impressively dynamic. There is a commentary by film historian David Kalat, which is useful in placing this film in context, and an interview with Christopher Frayling focusing on the movie’s visual look.
Other features include an audio recording of HG Wells reading an extract from his book (be prepared for an unexpectedly reedy voice) and a “visual essay” about Bliss’s score. Moreover, there is four minutes of unused, previously unseen special effects footage created by artist Lazlo Maholy-Nagy that was removed from the final cut of the movie (originally much longer, the film was edited several times before and after release); these images are strikingly abstract. Finally, O’Brien’s essay is included in a substantial, 24-page booklet filled with photos and production notes.
For all its faults, Things to Come is required viewing for anyone remotely interested in the history of cinema, the history of science fiction—or the history of remarkably ambitious artistic projects that might not entirely succeed but are well worth experiencing, anyway.