Things to Come
Directed by: William Cameron Menzies
Written by: H. G. Wells
Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott
William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come is an epic, sprawling visual wonder filmed from a script by H.G. Wells himself, loosely adapted from his novel The Shape of Things to Come. It’s a masterwork of design and cinematic grandeur, giving audiences of 1937 a dark look into the future, and audiences of 2013 an opportunity to contrast and compare Wells’ typically prescient observations on science and society.
The film takes place in a city not so subtly named ‘Everytown’, which seems to be a version of London, England. It’s Christmas day 1940 and the world is on the brink of WWII. Business man John Cabal hosts guests in celebration of the holidays but is distressed by the looming threat of war. Meanwhile his stubbornly optimistic friend Passworthy suggests a war will accelerate technological progress. This is immediately followed by a bombing raid, sending the world into war.
The war continues for decades, reverting society to an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland. In 1966, the faceless enemy turns to biological warfare, spreading a plague called the ‘wandering sickness’ which kills millions and threatens the human race until 1970, when a warlord combats the plague by killing the infected. When John Cabal shows up years older and leading a fleet of peace seeking revolutionaries, the future looks a little brighter. That is, until the entire cycle starts all over again.
Loosely adapted by H.G. Wells from his own book The Shape of Things to Come (unrelated — aside from title and character names — to the 1978 Canadian film), Things to Come is an epic science fiction story that offered the production team the opportunity to create some amazing visual effects. Throughout the film there are a number of montages illustrating the effects of war and the progress of technology. All of these segments are handled masterfully with the use of matte paintings and miniatures. The design of the actual ships, sets, and costumes are quite sophisticated for a film that predates the sci-fi boom of the 50’s by nearly 15 years.
The story itself is also great, but I would imagine its impact might have been stronger at the time of its release in 1936 when the post WWII future was unknown and looking potentially dark. Maybe there were those few people in the audience wondering if the world could actually completely revert to the dark ages again. WIth the atom bomb still a few years away, maybe Wells’ idea of a cyclical history in which we continually burn things down and rebuild them again wasn’t so ridiculous. His dates might have been off, but his idea of a “space gun” shooting a capsule of astronauts to the moon was only just over 33 years away.
Overall, Things to Come is a not-so-subtle but surprisingly relevant parable that tells an interesting story and features some amazing special effects for its time. Anybody who was intrigued by last year’s Cloud Atlas and its own brand of cyclical history should make a point to check this film out as it’s certainly an achievement in cinema and a landmark in science fiction filmmaking. While it may feel somewhat dated now and might suffer from a few unbearably earnest and grandiose monologues, it has aged mostly well and is definitely deserving of its reputation.
The Criterion release of Things to Come looks great but does show its age. There’s some soft photography now and again and minimal wear, but overall the transfer is pretty great. There’s no heavy signs of digital manipulation, which for me, is most important. Luckily, this release includes a number of great special features, some of which focus on the film’s design. First there’s an audio commentary with film historian David Kalat. Also, a new interview with Christopher Frayling on the film’s design, a visual essay by Bruce Eder on Arthur Bliss’s score, an audio recording of H.G. Wells talking about the ‘wandering sickness’, and my favourite, footage of some of the unused special effects by artist László Moholy-Nagy. It’s a great package for hardcore fans of the film and sci-fi fans catching it for the first time. — Jay C.