Things to Come

Director: William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay: H.G. Wells (based on his books The Shape of Things to Come and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind)
Stars: Raymond Massey (John Cabal / Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (Pippa Passworthy / Raymond Passworthy), Ralph Richardson (The Boss), Margaretta Scott (Roxana / Rowena), Cedric Hardwicke (Theotocopulos), Maurice Braddell (Dr. Harding), Sophie Stewart (Mrs. Cabal), Derrick De Marney (Richard Gordon), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), Pearl Argyle (Catherine Cabal), Kenneth Villiers (Maurice Passworthy), Ivan Brandt (Morden Mitani), Anne McLaren (The Child), Patricia Hilliard (Janet Gordon), Charles Carson (Great Grandfather)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: U.K.
Things to Come Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Things to ComeThings to Come is a great failure of a film experiment. A singular science fiction epic conceived and overseen by the prolific British writer and political thinker H.G Wells, it is most effective as a reminder of how movies can be a great vehicle for social and political ideas only so long as they are properly contextualized narratively and aesthetically. Falling somewhere between a conventional melodrama and a film essay, Things to Come is both and neither, which gives us no means of entry either emotionally or intellectually; we’re constantly trying to decide whether we should just sit back and be wowed by the incredible imagery of an alternate future or take the weighty and often ponderous dialogue seriously as engaging political discourse. Wells’s great mistake is that he thought he could translate his immense and weighty writings into the cinematic vernacular without paying due attention to character and dialogue.

The story begins in 1940, a mere four years into the future when the film was being made, with an impressive montage that cuts back and forth between the Christmas festivities of the fictional Everytown and ominous headlines and sandwich boards portending a coming war. The increasingly rapid juxtaposition of holiday imagery in which citizens happily, even blithely, go about their lives, and the bold, all-caps warnings of imminent war is a potent summation of our best-of-times tunnel vision; it is also, as it turns out, one of the first instances of Wells’s ham-handedness with exposition and director William Cameron Menzies’s awkwardness with any scene not involving complex special effects, as he insists on stating outright what was clearly implied in the montage by inserting a flat, expository sequence in which several characters debate the likelihood of the coming war, a conversation that is cut short by air raid sirens and dire loud-speaker warnings. Soon bombs are falling, anti-aircraft guns are firing away from the city square, and Everytown is reduced to rubble.

From there, the film takes us through several decades of war, as the entirety of human civilization is effectively blasted back to a medieval state of disparate warring clans, lack of communication, and primitive lifestyles. Wells’s idea is that, for humanity to truly move forward, our current state of affairs must be fundamentally obliterated, which is accomplished by the thirty-year world war depicted in the film and a purposefully released plague called the Wandering Sickness that turns people into stumbling, infectious automatons (and the film, temporarily at least, into an intriguing forerunner of modern zombie narratives). From the rubble emerges a new form of civilization based on science and reason that creates a one-world order by eliminating all the warring nation-states and bringing everyone together under a singular authority guided by the wisdom of science and technology. The film’s final third takes us to a new and improved Everytown (at least from Wells’s perspective) in which humanity has built a shining, modern beacon of civilization underground (Wells detested the idea of skyscrapers being the vision of the future, which is why he held Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in such low regard). Having somehow solved all of the problems afflicting previous iterations of human society—include poverty, hunger, and violence—this new utopian society can only look onward and upward, its only real problem being a group of dissenters who feel it is unwise to send people into outer space, which in Wells’s terms represents the ultimate in scientific accomplishment.

As the film’s narrative covers nearly 100 years of an alternate future, from 1940 to 2036, it is not surprising that the most impressive aspect of Things to Come is its detailed visualization of that which its title promises. Overseen by production designer Vincent Kora (brother of producer Alexander Korda), who would later win an Oscar for his exceptional work on The Thief of Bagdad (1940), the film’s imagery is consistently stunning, conveying with an impressive sense of realism everything from a postwar wasteland in which humanity survives amid teetering rubble, to a 21st-century future of massive, gleaming white interiors that resemble either an immense airport terminal or a shopping mall (interestingly, one predictive detail they get absolutely right is the use of flat-screen televisions in a rectangular aspect ratio). All of this imagery is accomplished via an often seamless mixture of virtually every special effects trick available at the time: miniatures, forced perspective, gargantuan sets, and various optical effects. As far as imagery goes, Things to Come is a masterpiece.

Everything else, however, is a something of a disaster. Wells was a brilliant man—his voluminous output of science fiction, history, and political and social writing attests to both his vast intellect and his wide-ranging interests—but that brilliance came at the expense of grand ego, which he inflicted on virtually every aspect of Things to Come (a few years earlier he had been incensed at the changes made to his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau for the 1933 film Island of Lost Souls, and we might speculate that his complete control here was partially to balance out that perceived injustice). Believing that he knew cinema as well as he knew the written word, he insisted on overseeing every aspect of the film, giving his approval to the smallest details of set design and costume and contractually requiring that not a single word of his screenplay, which was based on his prophetic books The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), be changed. Unfortunately, Wells proved to have a tin ear for both dialogue and the incorporation of ideas into the narrative flow, as he often grinds the story to a halt so that a character or characters can pontificate, delivering long-winded speeches that, while full of fascinating, if sometimes unsettling, ideas, feel pretentious and out-of-place.

The problem was further compounded by the hiring of William Cameron Menzies as director. A gifted production designer and art director whose most notable work includes the silent version of The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Gone With the Wind (1939), he was notorious for his inability (or disinclation) to work with actors, favoring instead a hyper-focus on the film’s look (while Alfred Hitchcock famously referred to actors as cattle, as least he recognized their presence). Thus, Wells’s leaden screenplay is further weighted down by flat performances from otherwise good actors, which renders the film inert at exactly the times when it should be drawing us in (the only real exception is Ralph Richardson, who brings wonderfully theatrical flair to his portrayal of an opportunistic warlord).

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film of comparably epic aspirations, provides an interesting counterpoint here, as it would seem to have some of the same flaws (grand visual design, lack of characterization). Yet, 2001 transcends that potential flaw because its uninteresting human characters are a crucial part of Kubrick’s depiction of a dehumanized future run by technology. Wells, on the other hand, viewed technology as the liberator of humanity, yet his denizens of the future are so painfully dull that we feel the need to cheer on the rebel force trying to stop the march of progress, the very opposite response we’re intended to have. The supposed wonders of the film’s utopian vision of a World State run by benevolent, reasonable, incorruptible technocrats is undermined by the flattening of human emotion (Wells’s more radical ideas about the elimination of religion, capitalism, and individual rights, which are present in his writings, are implied, rather than stated). Where Kubrick merges ideas and imagery to emphasize the story’s underlying themes, Wells puts them at odds with each other, making us yearn for the messiness of an earlier age. Had he and the filmmakers at his beck and call managed to integrate the scope of his ideas with the film’s detailed vision of a future that takes us from a war-torn dystopia to a socialist utopia, Things to Come might have been a true science fiction classic, rather than a disappointing lesson learned about the limitations of amazing imagery bereft of interesting characters and narrative.

Things to Come Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Things to Come is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat
  • Video interview with writer and cultural historian Christopher Frayling on the film’s design
  • Visual essay by film historian Bruce Eder on Arthur Bliss’s musical score
  • Unused special effects footage by artist László Moholy-Nagy, along with a video installation piece by Jan Tichy incorporating that footage
  • Audio recording from 1936 of a reading from H.G. Wells’s writing about the Wandering Sickness
  • Essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 18, 2013

    Things to Come has been in and out of the public domain over the years, so that means there are a lot of video versions out there, all of which are either truncated and/or feature terrible transfers made from inferior elements. Criterion’s new Blu-ray is certainly the definitive version for Region 1, with a new, digitally restored 4K high-def transfer made from a fine-grain composite print held by the British Film Institute. The resulting image is a bit softer than I expected it to be, with a heavy emphasis on grays rather than sharp contrast. Detail is still quite good and the print’s grain structure is kept clearly intact despite the extensive digital scrubbing of age, damage, and wear. The soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit, has been pieced together from a number of optical tracks on 35mm prints, the most prominent being the BFI’s fine-grain composite print. Given the prominence of Arthur Bliss’s impressive musical score, the quality of the soundtrack is crucial, and Criterion has come through nicely with a strong monaural track that, while limited by the technology of its day, is still quite robust.
    A film as historically significant yet artistically flawed as Things to Come demands some context, and the supplements on Criterion’s disc fill that role nicely. First is a newly commissioned audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat, who has previously recorded commentaries and written liner notes for Criterion’s Godzilla (1954) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) discs, among others. As always, Kalat is deeply informative, offering a wealth of background and production information to help frame the film’s triumphs and failings (he is particularly detailed in discussing H.G. Wells and his prominent position in the literary world at that time). Also on the disc is a lengthy video interview with writer and cultural historian Christopher Frayling, author of a BFI monograph about the film, who talks primarily about the production design; a new visual essay by film historian Bruce Eder on Arthur Bliss’s musical score, which Wells commissioned before the film was shot; and several snippets of unused special effects footage by artist László Moholy-Nagy, along with a video installation piece by Jan Tichy incorporating that footage. Wells enthusiasts will enjoy the inclusion of a scratchy audio recording from 1936 of a reading from the writer himself about the Wandering Sickness.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.