[box cover]

Things to Come (1936)

Image Entertainment

Starring Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke,
Maurice Braddell, Edward Chapman, Margaretta Scott,
and "a cast of 20,000"

Written by H. G. Wells
Directed and designed by William Cameron Menzies


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Review by Mark Bourne                   


The adult moviegoing audiences of the 1930s had experienced the unprecedented horrors of the First World War, the "war to end all wars." Throughout England and continental Europe the grinding Great Depression and Hitler's rhetoric were quite plainly setting the table for another World War. To a disgruntled yet cautiously optimistic H.G. Wells, only scientific reason — not religion or capitalism — could be Mankind's savior in that most desperate hour, could give us the tools to finally rise above our baser animal selves and reach nobly toward a future built on peace and prosperity and progress and the enlightened road of pacifist socialism. His best works (such as The Time Machine) long behind him and, at nearly 70, a waning Grand Old Man of literary highbrows, Wells collaborated with producer Alexander Korda to communicate his worldview on an epic scale. Together they adapted Wells' 1933 book, The Shape of Things to Come, into a movie that was to serve as a cautionary tale, an anti-war plea, and a platform where Wells' beliefs and fears could be realized and understood by vast audiences.

The result, 1936's visually spectacular but arid and tendentious Things to Come, holds an important place in the history of science fiction cinema. As a visionary work that aims to honestly tackle the devastating consequences of international warfare, this is one of the few science fiction films that's about something, that's meant to offer you mental popcorn to munch on long after the "The End" card. It "predicts" television, jet planes, and evil dictators. Things to Come spans an entire Apocalyptic century and three generations of story time, ending in 2036 with a rocket to the moon. The war-ravaged world it depicts is saved by Science and scientists, both personified with messianic rectitude by Raymond Massey. In its vast scope and its visualizations of global war and a civilizing techno-utopia, it's epic on a Cecil B. DeMille Bible movie scale.

For his director, Korda hired an American scenic designer, William Cameron Menzies. This was the first time Menzies had been tasked with directing a feature-length project on his own. His later work as production designer and sometimes-director can be seen in visual spectacles such as Gone with the Wind, Korda's 1940 Thief of Baghdad, and the original Invaders from Mars.

Things to Come is a product of its time and place and writer. That's important to understand if we're to appreciate it as something more than a creaky black-and-white polemic dressed up in flaring shelf collars. Even so, in its day it was a box-office flop. After Things to Come premiered, Wells' heart must have sunk as audiences avoided his impassioned and idealistic — yet dour and didactic — cri de coeur. Created to stimulate the intellect more than the emotions, the movie is preachy, slow-paced, and oh so upper-class English. Menzies filled the screen with awesome visuals, but his stiff and dry directing gave more personality and dimension to the sets than to the actors.

At the same time, Wells had no prior experience writing for film, and his screenplay exhibited few cinematic, or even dramatic, instincts. Everyone onscreen has a speech to make, and sometimes the speech-making is used the way Robert De Niro uses a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Philosophically the film's agenda is blinkered and naive (but audaciously so), and Wells' good intentions are undercut when the script takes its own moral probity as self-evident truth, which often translates as smugness.

Add the declamatory acting and the "futuristic" costumes that look like a WPA production of Oedipus Rex, and we have a movie that began aging badly on its opening day.

*          *          *

Things to Come opens with a near-future forecast of Christmas 1940 in the metropolis of Everytown (obviously London), a city threatened by world war. Pacifist intellectuals, such as John Cabal (Massey), try to turn the tide. But Cabal's efforts go unheeded by the self-interested classes, and war arrives with tanks and aeroplanes and gas bombs. Everytown is destroyed by air raids (dramatically enacted four years before the real thing). The war continues for thirty years, its original purpose forgotten. As a result, civilization degenerates while "the Wandering Sickness" and devastation accelerate the spiral down until 1970, when the world has crumbled into a balkanized "Mad Max" Dark Ages. Everytown is ruled by a barbaric warlord, the Boss (Ralph Richardson), as the war continues on a Medieval scale. The Boss (an anti-intellectual nationalistic neoconservative if there ever was one) desperately wishes technological superiority over his enemies, especially via air travel, but everyone knows that no such technology exists anymore.

Nonetheless, some scientists, such as Doctor Harding (Maurice Braddell) and the mechanic Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney), refuse to believe that civilization can't still be saved through technology. Sure enough, a strange craft appears among the clouds. The Airman emerges: John Cabal, 30 years older but still looking sharp in a black rubber flightsuit and enormous bubble helmet. He represents Wings Over the World, an enlightened society of scientists and engineers, and is scouting the land to assess the savage tribal communities that have replaced civilization. Cabal promises the people a new, superior civilization "of law and sanity" that needs no Bosses or independent sovereign states, but only if the people put their faith in Science rather than in the Boss and his kind.

Naturally, the Boss wants to prevent Cabal from taking away his power. He imprisons Cabal while he battles a neighboring tribe. The Boss's woman companion, Roxana (Margaretta Scott), is intrigued by the freedom and intellectual curiosity that Cabal represents. With her aid, Cabal helps Gordon escape with a flying machine to World Communications (a "government of common sense"), where Gordon informs the technocratic elite of what has happened to Cabal in Everytown. Soon mammoth flying fortresses appear over Everytown, defeat the Boss's forces, and drop Peace Gas which knocks out the populace. Cabal declares that the Boss is "dead, and his world dead with him." The people of Everytown awaken to the birth of a new planned society of reason. In an impressive sequence, we witness the next 70 years pass in a montage as Mankind's immense machines rebuild the world phoenix-like from the ashes of primal ruination.

By 2036, Everytown is an enormous Brave New World, an enclosed subterranean supercity as gleaming white as a Sunday school ideal of Heaven. A little girl receives a history lesson by her grandfather, and she expresses delight that people will "keep on inventing things and making life lovelier and lovelier." Every aspect of human life (except apparently the fashion industry) has never been better, thanks to Science.

However, not all is well. A sculptor, Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), represents artists and others unhappy with all this dehumanized progress, as symbolized by a gargantuan Space Gun built to shoot the first manned vehicle around the moon. (This was an old Jules Verne device that Wells in '36 must have known was scientifically ludicrous, but it looked great.) Theotocopulos calls for a revival of the olden days when life was "short and hot and merry" (when that was, he doesn't say). On a building-sized television screen, he rails against the "evil gods" of progress, which must be halted by destroying the Space Gun. Fortunately, the leader of Everytown is John Cabal's great-grandson, Oswald (Massey again), whose daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) is one of the two lunar-bound space pioneers. Her astro-companion is Maurice (Kenneth Viliers), whose father, Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman), is Oswald's friend who shares the fears spoken by Theotocopulos.

Oswald learns that Theotocopulos will lead an attack against the Space Gun. Choosing to continue the launch, Catherine and Maurice join Oswald and Passworthy in a helicopter to the launch complex. Theotocopulos keeps on rousing the rabble, who flock to the Space Gun with metal clubs like villagers from a Frankenstein film. Just in the nick of time, the bullet-like moonship is loaded into the launcher and blasted into space.

In the movie's most famous sequence, Oswald and Passworthy stand before a huge vision screen spackled with the infinite starry cosmos. Oswald calls it a beginning, but Passworthy wonders if humans are nothing more than animals. Oswald declares that the choice is ours to make:

"For Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.... If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or...all the universe?.... Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?"

*          *          *

There's no deying that Things to Come is majestic and earnest. Its sequences that burst their seams with science-fictional images are fascinating to watch, especially with one eye on cinematic heritage à la Fritz Lang's Metropolis (which Wells' called, with no sense of irony, "the silliest of films").

It's also, in every meaningful definition of the term, a propaganda film. And not an effective one. Wells' techno-fetishist future is as narrow a fantasy as one of those Star Trek episodes where ten character actors represent the entire population and cultures of a planetary civilization. Humanistic artists and progressive technocrats alike are reduced to types that exist only to personify extreme points of view. Wells trumpets the axiomatic superiority of a conformist and completely secular society that would choke a Libertarian. As subtle as a hardbound copy of Wells' History of the World thumping your forehead, Things to Come's message states that individual lives and actions are of no consequence when compared to the progress and destiny of the entire human race. (Disciples of Ayn Rand's equally simpleminded counter-polemics should not view Things to Come with throwable objects neaby.) The passing years have only added to the film's creaking floorboards, such as its casual sexism and all-white utopia.

Nevertheless, for boldness of ambition and nobility of purpose, Things to Come stands tall in the canon of science fiction on screen. It is eyebrow-raising in its prescient depiction of the blitz bombings of London in 1940 and of the war that followed. The Boss remains all too familiar today, whether in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or here in the U.S. (Perhaps the universe's perverse sense of humor made it inevitable that when the real 1970 came around we had Nixon and Vietnam.) Wells' highminded epilogue for Massey remains a fine summation of drives behind the best science fiction. The film's visual magnitude, episodic structure, and emotional coldness make it an ancestor of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another slow-moving, characterization-free exploration of Big Ideas. Its closing benediction of space travel as the ultimate metaphor for human transcendence continues to sing, even as we're yanked forward into a disquietingly unpredictable 21st century.


The DVD

Image's DVD edition of Things to Come is touted as a "pristine new film-to-video transfer from original source materials" and "beautifully restored from the original 35mm studio masters." In that regard this is indeed the best print of Things to Come I've ever seen. Don't let the Technicolor box art fool you, this is still a black-and-white film. The good news is that the black-and-white contrast is quite good and definition is sharp. Gone is the murky, washed-out grayness that's been standard in public domain prints kicking around for years. Cleaner and well framed, this release is a big step forward from inferior earlier DVD and Laserdisc editions. The aspect ratio is the original full-screen 1.37:1.

However. While no doubt Image really did bring us the best possible print from the original 35mm studio masters, those masters were themselves far from pristine. Blemishes, visible wear, and scratches remain plentiful, making the phrases "beautifully restored" and "pristine new film-to-video transfer" more than a little disingenuous.

The DD 1.0 monaural audio carries its share of old pops and fuzz, but they're not intrusive. Everything comes across crisp and discernable, from the dialogue to the fine orchestral score by Arthur Bliss.

Purists will notice that this edition does not restore the footage that's been snipped here and there over the years. This edition's running time is just shy of 93 minutes, while the original theatrical release clocked in at 130 minutes and was soon cut to 113. The excised footage is presumed lost.

This bare-bones disc holds no extras besides the original (and quaintly overblown) theatrical trailer.

—Mark Bourne



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