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Wells' vision is a sprawling epic. In 1936 (the film's year of release) peaceful Everytown (read: London) is bracing for a renewed conflict, which comes in the form of massed air raids in 1940. A decades-long world war ensues, bringing an end to civilization. By 1970 the rubble of Everytown has barely survived a terrible plague called The Walking Sickness. Its feudal ruler Rudolph, The Boss (Ralph Richardson) wages primitive war on neighboring fiefdoms to secure the raw materials to revive more sophisticated weaponry. Into this Dark Age lands a futuristic airplane. Its pilot John Cabal (Raymond Massey) was once a citizen of Everytown, and a pacifist. Now he's an aerial envoy for a Basra-based technical guild called Wings over the World. This league of engineers is using superior technology to defeat the warlords and make a new start for mankind. The Boss holds Cabal hostage but it isn't long before giant bombing planes from Basra arrive, armed with the 'Gas of Peace'.
Decades of scientific advancements follow, re-engineering the planet into a peaceful technocracy of industry and underground living. By the year 2036 a giant Space Gun has been built to shoot humans around the moon. But a group of dissident artists led by master sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) is unhappy with the political aims of the world leader Oswald Cabal, John's grandson. The sculptor raises a vast mob, and directs it to destroy the Space Gun.
The circumstances of the making of Things to Come may be unique in film history. H.G. Wells had complete artistic control over the production; his goal was an exciting film but also to disseminate his ideas about mankind's future. A utopian idealist, Wells made a couple of notable predictions (a London air raid in 1940 is the main one) but was blinded by his faith in his own intellectual infallibility. He believed wars would bring an end to technical progress, when the opposite was true. He was convinced that the nations of the world would be destroyed by an interminable WW1-like conflict. Relief would come in a universal revolution run by a technological elite. As Criterion's extras point out, Wells actually tried to lecture Joseph Stalin to "improve" the Soviet revolution; one can't fault the author for not standing behind his words. Although Wells despised Fritz Lang's giddy, scientific fairy tale Metropolis, our 'present future' resembles Lang's classed society more than it does the societal nirvana depicted in Wells' epic. Moreover, Wells' antiseptic future now feels like a Fascist state... an idealized, sanitized version of what Germany's Albert Speer might have cooked up, had he worked in glass and super-plastic instead of concrete.
As emphasized by scholars David Kalat and Christopher Frayling, Things to Come employed a surfeit of fine designers. The director William Cameron Menzies was best known as a production designer, not directing actors. Wells expected viewers to be fascinated by his illustrated super-lecture and receptive to his grand ideas. Critics instead lambasted the film for neglecting to engage the audience: Variety's review commented sourly that, "It will be viewed as an experiment successful in every respect except emotionality. For heart interest Mr. Wells hands you an electric switch." Actor Raymond Massey complained that all his effort was expended to sell what was basically a futuristic position speech. It's interesting that a decade later Massey would be at it again, mouthing reams of Ayn Rand's political and philosophical rhetoric for The Fountainhead. Rand had also been given contractual control; both movies are expensive pulpits for their authors' windy oratory.
Those considerations cannot diminish Things to Come's near-astounding achievement as filmed science fiction. Arthur Bliss composed his symphonic score in concert with Wells' writing process, using the music as the foundation for major non-verbal scenes. The ominous tone of the opening invasion fear montage is achieved via editing theories borrowed from Russian masterpieces. The war threat is shouted in graphic text on placards and newspaper headlines, like signposts in a Jean-Luc Godard film. The special effects that dominate the film are remarkably well designed. State of the art opticals, miniatures, rear-projection and giant sets for a Piccadilly Circus-like city square show the evolution of Everytown across the decades, through total aerial destruction and years of post-apocalyptic rot. We finally witness its total re-invention as a massive underground wonder city.
The Earth's surface is restored as a verdant garden, even as giant mining machines extract minerals in vast subterranean caverns. This music-driven sequence assumes that Mother Earth's natural resources are unlimited. We of course aren't told how the population is controlled, or where all the non-Anglo people might be. The 2036 vision of "Utopia Achieved" is capped with a space program dedicated to the hubristic proposition that mankind's destiny is to conquer the universe. Wells proposes that we will seek God-hood in the same way that his Doctor Moreau dared to 'evolve' animals into men. Does Cabal want us to become a floating ghostly intelligence, like the Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The Space Gun conflict of 2036 is a cheat: Wells raises a debate but arranges for the opposing viewpoint to have little or no credibility. The rebellious artist Theotocopulous irrationally demands an end to progress. He proclaims a lot of stuffy, selfish hogwash while the superior Cabal verbalizes Wells' philosophical quest for the stars. The progressive Cabal is willing to sacrifice his own child and other young people on risky space missions into the cosmos. His unhappy associate Passworthy (Edward Chapman) is caught in the middle, meekly begging for a little peace and quiet. The inspirational final shot of Cabal's noble profile against the stars seems borrowed from the conclusion of Wells' novel The Food of the Gods, which describes a colossal 'new man' as he proclaims his right to conquer without end. The imagery is also uncomfortably close to depictions of racial glory in Nazi art: unyielding Nordic faces seeking perfection in the stars.
Things to Come is a feast for the eyes and ears and the brain, too. Many scenes have retained an undiminished iconic power. The massed formations of bombing airships would soon become reality, as would huge buildings seemingly designed to make individual humans seem insignificant. Ralph Richardson's Boss rants and raves about 'sovereignty' in 1970, becoming the very image of stubborn brigandage in the modern age.
Criterion's Blu-ray of H.G. Wells' Things to Come is the best video iteration yet of this eccentric classic, using source materials held by the BFI. We only wish that even more perfect and complete film elements were available. The flat B&W image has very good resolution and is free of the rough contrast flutter of earlier copies. Further digital intervention by Criterion has taken out spots and imperfections, and eliminated jitter and jumps at splices.
I have yet to hear a really clear soundtrack for this picture. Criterion's notes say that multiple elements were referenced and that a 35mm optical track was the primary source. The end result is still a little tubby. All dialogue is exceptionally clear, however. The BBFC measured Things to Come at 117 minutes when it gave its censor approval in 1936. Its London premiere reported a 110-minute duration. The standard American cut on older discs clocks in just under 93 minutes. Criterion's disc is the longest version available, at 97 minutes. It reinstates three sequences for American audiences. In the first, Passworthy exits Cabal's house before the first air raid. He praises the war spirit as a merciless program of vermin extermination. The second reinstated scene is the Boss's drunken victory banquet, where we learn that Rudolph has other female favorites besides his official consort Roxana (Margueretta Scott). Unfortunately, this addition does nothing to mend the erratic continuity gaps in the following scene, when Roxana talks with Cabal in his improvised cell. The third bit is a portion of dialogue restored to the old man's history lesson to his granddaughter in 2036.
The discs' new extras are truly eye opening. Sir Christopher Frayling's interview-essay on the film's designers discusses Vincent Korda and William Cameron Menzies along with other big names from England and the Bauhaus, most of whose ideas were rejected. With all the creativity diverted to the film's design, nobody took responsibility for guiding the performances. Fine actors like Raymond Massey are basically left to direct themselves.
A related video piece presents a few concept trials by designer László Moholy-Nagy. He experiments with perspective, shadows, and industrial shapes. A vision of little white squares flipping and moving as if on a loom or an abacus was incorporated into the film's 'Industrial Reconstruction' montage. A later experimental film using Moholy-Nagy's footage looks like a psychedelic widescreen light show.
Bruce Eder's visual essay goes over the unique relationship between the film's images and its Arthur Bliss music score. Another extra is an audio narration outtake for a scripted episode during the plague years of The Wandering Sickness. It is accompanied by one photo, proving that an accompanying scene had been filmed.
David Kalat's audio commentary contains the most imaginative, thorough analysis I've heard or read on Things to Come. The persuasive Kalat takes on the complex subject of Wells -- his works, his personality, and his personal relationships. Everything relates directly to the film, even the author's real-life romance with a suspected Soviet agent. Best of all, Kalat reaches beyond the technical talk and production personality stories to evaluate Things to Come's philosophy -- how it relates to other political realities and futuristic predictions. I wish that more filmed science fiction were afforded scholarly attention of this caliber.
Things to Come is a fascinating vision of a future that never was. The sad truth is that working with H.G. Wells so frustrated Alexander Korda that he regretted making the film, an attitude that cued sixty-odd years of cinematic neglect. Criterion producer Susan Arosteguy's extras are a big step forward in the rescue of Things to Come's reputation.
By Glenn Erickson