“Epic” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of British Science Fiction film, Things to Come (1936), now on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Directed by William Cameron Menzies (The Thief of Baghdad), produced by Alexander Korda and written by the one and only H.G. Wells, Things to Come is more Wells’ project than anyone else previously mentioned. Wells had a degree of control over every aspect of the production, which was, and still is, unprecedented for a screenwriter. His name even received top billing on the poster, and subsequent DVD/Blu-Ray covers offer “H.G. Wells’ Things to Come” with Alexander Korda and William Cameron Menzies appearing in smaller type on the side. The films plot may be a bit thin, but there is no denying that what they achieved for the time is visually and aesthetically breathtaking.
As stated above, Things to Come is both epic in scope and presentation. It tells the story of a “future history” from 1940-203,6 and is set in the fictional British city of ‘Everytown’. We are introduced to John Cabal (Raymond Massey), a businessman who’s worried about the outbreak of war on Christmas Eve, 1940. Later that night, the war does come in the form of aerial bombings and continues for decades. A disease, known as The Wandering Sickness, plagues what’s left of civilization, wiping the weaker communities out, but eventually ends after Rudolph “The Boss” (Ralph Richardson) orders all of the infected to be shot. John Cabal comes back, as part of an organization known as Wings Over The World with a mission to unite humanity as a whole. Rudolph opposes this, throwing Cabal in jail. Word of Cabal’s imprisonment reaches his comrades and they “attack” Everytown with sleeping gas. After the suicide of “The Boss”, the town decides to join in with the project to unite humanity.
We flash forward – into the future of 2036, where they have developed a “super gun” which can send ships to the moon. The sculptor, Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), is not happy with the rate of progress they’ve been making during their time of peace and decides to revolt.
The story is interesting, if not inherently simplistic, and the acting is era-appropriate and surprisingly devoted to the material and ideas that are present. Essentially a trip into the allegorical mind of H.G. Wells, Things to Come is a fascinating work of early science fiction on film, and a marvel of early special effects work. Stylistically, the film is much less flamboyant and complex as Metropolis, but is just as effective with political and philosophical subtext abound. If anything, the film only suffers from a lack of humor, tackling its subjects with such grim and stark cynicism that its hard to completely immerse yourself in the film.
In his conception of Things to Come, H.G. Wells detested Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so much so that he sent a memo to the crew that states, “All that balderdash one finds in such a film as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis about ‘robot workers’ and ultra-skyscrapers, et cetera, should be cleared out of your minds before you work on this film. As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here”. That they did, as the main draw of Things to Come is arguably the set pieces and overall décor. The “stand outs” include, but are not limited to, the air raid in the beginning, the sleep gas raid by Wings Over The World and the design of the futuristic Everytown of 2036.
As with all of Criterion’s releases, the video transfer is as good as it gets, though that may not necessarily be the “best”. Often times the image quality suffers from scratches and blemishes, likely as a result of aging on the print. Some scenes, particularly during the night bomb raids, are full of noise and worst of all, some are blurry or out of focus, especially during the montage sequences of “progress”. Considering this is a restored film from the 30’s, which, more or less, had been chopped up multiple times on the editing room floor – I’ll give Criterion the benefit of the doubt.
The LPCM Mono track was fairly decent. Though, there was a volume fluctuation between the soundtrack and the dialogue at certain points. Overall, no problem was too jarring. The dialogue is easy to follow and there’s no background hiss present, either.
There are quite a few impressive supplements on this Criterion Blu-ray. For those interested in the production and motivation behind the film, there is an audio commentary featuring film historian and writer David Kalat. Writer and cultural historian Christopher Frayling talks about the design of the film in an interview, for those interested. There’s a visual essay by film historian Bruce Eder on Arthur Bliss’s musical score, which is a brilliant companion piece for the film itself. There’s a segment with unused special effects footage by artist László Moholy-Nagy, along with a video installation piece by Jan Tichy incorporating that footage, another deal-sealing extra for cinephiles. There’s an audio recording from 1936 of a reading from H.G. Wells’ writing about The Wandering Sickness, for die-hard Wells fans. And as per standard with Criterion releases, Things to Come includes a booklet featuring a new essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
Things to Come is certainly a landmark in science fiction cinema. From the aesthetically beautiful scenery and effects, made even more spectacular for the time period in which they were done, to the socio-political message and the implied ramifications of “progress”, this Criterion Blu-Ray is a must have for science fiction cinephiles.
– By Robert Vaughn
Robert Vaughn is a graduate of Montclair State University, NJ, with a B.F.A. in Filmmaking. Throughout his time in the program, he worked on various aspects of pre, pro and post-production. Writing has always been a favorite of his and he feels this “favoritism” shows in his work. Various professors, students, directors and actors have praised his writing ability. On top of writing for Diabolique, he has written for TV, written/co-written feature films for So Real? Entertainment and is currently working on a feature length dark comedy script of his own. Follow him on twitter: @rvaughn881