Things to Come: Criterion Collection
July 3, 2013
H.G. Wells was a prolific author responsible for science fiction classics like The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The War of the Worlds. He eventually became interested in writing about where he thought humanity was headed and where it ought to go. This culminated in a book entitled, The Shape of Things to Come, written in the style of a history text book from the early 22nd century. It was ambitious tome and one that Wells was eager to adapt into a film. Producer Alexander Korda was skeptical about its cinematic possibilities, but Wells went ahead and wrote the screenplay. A massive amount of resources were utilized and the end result received strong reviews, but the clinical approach failed to connect with audiences and Things to Come (1936) failed to recoup its considerable budget.
Europe is on the verge of war and the populace of Everytown is apprehensive, chief among them John Cabal (Massey), who actively ponders alternatives to war. However, on Christmas, several enemy aircraft bomb key targets nearby. The city mobilizes for war with the army moving in and taking strategic positions. Decades pass as the war drags on, but finally the enemy is been defeated. However, a few rogue planes attempt to spread “the wandering sickness,” a fever that affects the mind as well as the body. More years drag on before society is able to evolve into a utopian ideal.
The sets and the scale of them are impressive as the filmmakers create a believable bustling metropolis. There is certainly no shortage of striking imagery, like that of a little boy dressed up as a soldier only to be dwarfed by large silhouettes of actual men marching off to war. We get several shots of people fleeing in panic when war is announced. The bombardment of the city is an incredible sequence as well – breathtakingly staged and horrific in its depiction of death and destruction as the once thriving metropolis and its denizens are laid to waste. No one is spared, including children. There are scenes of self-sacrifice, like a wounded pilot who gives his gas mask to a little girl so that she may live. It’s a glimmer of humanity amidst so much dehumanization, but it pales in comparison to bombed out ruins of Everytown.
Things to Come is a powerful indictment of war as Wells depicts its devastating effects. We are subjected to montages of squadrons of tanks and aircraft heading off to battle. One has to admire the message and the sheer ambition on display, even if the dialogue is rather heavy-handed with characters spouting politicized speeches instead of realistic dialogue. Yet, Wells offers hope as years pass and a utopia is gradually realized. Things to Come seems to suggest that no matter how grim things get, humanity will find a way to survive and thrive.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray cleans up scratches and other blemishes and the result is a pristine print that is darker and with more contrast than previously existing transfers.
There is an audio commentary by film historian David Kalat. He starts off examining H.G. Wells’ involvement in the production. He gives a brief look at the author’s legacy as a science fiction writer and how it was only a small part of his career. One genre he essayed was utopian fiction, which Things to Come is a prime example. Kalat takes a detailed look at important crew members and their contributions to the film on this informative track.
“Christopher Frayling on the Design” sees the writer and cultural historian discussing in detail the film’s astounding production design. Wells chose director William Cameron Menzies because of his background in production design. He also pushed to have his son work on the visual effects. Interestingly, Wells hated the futuristic vision of Metropolis (1927), but didn’t know what he wanted and making the film was a process of realizing it.
“Bruce Eder on the Score” is a visual essay examining Arthur Bliss’ musical score. He was told by Wells that music was to play as important a role in Things to Come as dialogue even though the author knew nothing about it! Wells also wanted the film made to a pre-recorded score, but producer Alexander Korda refused. Elder analyzes several musical cues in detail.
“Laszlo Moholy-Nagy” features excerpts of unused footage that this Bauhaus artist created for the film, most of which was cut out. Some of it was also used in a 2012 video installation, which is also included.
Finally, “The Wandering Sickness” is a reading of an excerpt from Wells’ book about the fever that wipes out a large portion of Earth’s population.