Things to Come is one of the most impressive Science Fiction films ever made, yet one of the least popular. A giant prestige production from an England between the wars, it was originally dismissed and largely ignored, much as was H.G. Wells himself in his waning years. Its much more modest companion film The Man Who Could Work Miracles, was by comparison a big hit. Although he's never seen a really good print of this Art Deco Utopian fantasy, Savant loves the film. Most people who take the time to learn something about it come away with the same reaction. If you're the kind of person that can't get beyond the plastic-toga costumes worn by the hoi polloi of 2036, or are aren't interested in a film that predicts the Battle of Britain four years ahead of time, well, you can take Armageddon back to your sandbox and be happy there.
There are any number of ways to approach this epic: as Wells' socialist riposte to Fritz Lang's Metropolis; as a masterpiece whose reputation might be reestablished if it were properly restored; and, more troublingly, as a curious and perhaps malevolent expression of H.G. Wells' ideas about a eugenically-cleansed future for Mankind.
In 1936 (when the film was made) the peaceful Everytown (read: London) is bracing for conflict, which comes in 1940 in the form of massed air raids. A decades-long world war ensues, bringing an end to civilization as we know it. Thirty years later, Everytown has barely survived a terrible plague called The Walking Sickness, and is still a rubble heap. Its feudal ruler Rudolph the 'Boss' (Ralph Richardson) wages un-mechanized war on neighboring fiefdoms in hopes of gaining the raw materials to revive more sophisticated weaponry. Into this Dark Age lands a futuristic aeroplane. Its pilot John Cabal (Raymond Massey) wears a giant bubbleheaded helmet. Cabal was once a citizen of Everytown who preached anti-war views. Now he's a leader in a Basra-based technical guild called Wings over the World that is using superior technology to defeat the warlords and make a new start for mankind. The Boss holds Cabal hostage, but engineer Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney), his wife Mary (Ann Todd) and Doctor Harding (Maurice Braddell) conspire to steal one of Everytown's antiquated biplanes to summon reinforcements from Basra. When giant bombing planes drop the 'Gas of Peace' Everytown is conquered without bloodshed, and joins the New Order.
Decades of building and scientific advancements follow, re-engineering Earth into a peaceful technocracy of industry and underground living. A century later in 2036 society has built a giant Space Gun to shoot humans around the moon, but a dissident group of artists led by master sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites a mob to destroy it. The revolt fails, and John's son Oswald Cabal pontificates on the destiny of Man as the Moon capsule blazes to the stars.
Things to Come is a feast for the eyes and ears and the brain, too. Many of its special effects are still awe-inspiring, as is its sweeping symphonic score. The main objection of detractors is that its acting is disjointed and its dialogue is a constant flow of 'author's message' speechifying. Ragged cuts made on the film after release created most of the bad continuity gaps that startle viewers. As for the long speeches, Savant believes they are essential in a movie that is as much a presentation of H.G. Wells' philosophy as it is a narrative film.
Visually, Things to Come has few peers in Science Fiction. William Cameron Menzies' designs are just as massive as those in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and his cinematics benefit from more sophisticated editorial firepower. Sophisticated montages advance the story across years of war and turmoil. The opening musical montage of the Christmas jitters and the later air raid on Everytown are truly successful examples of Eisensteinian montage, juxtaposing images of 'peace' and 'war.' The montage of mining and manufacturing the futuristic city 'for Our Children's Children's Children' is a wonder of graphic industrial imagery.
Many scenes are meant to be symbolic and although some come off as stilted, others have undiminished power. The little girl who runs to the side of John Cabal and a downed enemy pilot is a strange echo of the tot seen in the 1964 campaign ad run by President Johnson to defeat Goldwater. The body on the barbed wire that dissolves to only a few remaining tatters echoes back to a similar setup in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. The Boss, rants and raves about 'sovereignity' in 1970, and was immediately identified as Richard Nixon by the group of college kids to whom I showed Things to Come -- in 1970! And the all-powerful, all-potent figure of Oswald Cabal challenging the heavens that ends the movie has triple thematic echoes, back to the ending of Wells' book The Food of the Gods, and forward to both the conclusion of King Vidor's version of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, and by extension, to the Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Image Entertainment's DVD release of Wade Williams' print of Things to Come is a welcome disc. It is not some special restoration but simply a good transfer of the 1936 American Release version of the film. Still, it looks and sounds better than any copy I've yet seen. It still has the same flaws inherent in a movie made from a dupe negative back in that era. Duplication film stocks being what they were, there is slightly too much contrast, a minor flickering and more grain than one would like. There's also evidence that it was ever so slightly cropped on all four sides when the dupe was made. Many compositions look a bit cramped, even more than can be accounted for by William Cameron Menzies' tight framing. The image is fairly clean. There is one 'oh no' ragged splice right in the middle of the Big Ben London Films logo. Reel changes are accompanied by a few seconds of cinch marks and scratches, and that's about it. Very strongly on the plus side, the print is intact all the way to the very end; this is the first copy Savant has seen that doesn't conclude in a garble of splices and mangled music.
The audio is also an improvement. Like the picture, dupe soundtracks from the 30s also weren't terrific, and here the audio is still on the 'crunchy' side - harsh, but given a good digital cleanup (Savant would guess). I say this because the usual cacophony of pops, hisses and surface noise heard in 16mm prints and P.D. tapes is missing. The great music score is still a bit subdued. However, I wish to stress that this is the best-sounding track I've heard to date on this picture. The Cabals' Christmas whisperings over the baby crib are perfectly audible here.
With Things to Come a public domain title, a restoration of the original 112 (perhaps 117) minute cut is at present a pipe dream. The video world has been missing a decent version of this movie for a long time, and Image's disc fills that bill well. Now perhaps, Wade Williams will remaster and re-release a truly good disc of Invaders from Mars!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Things to Come rates:
Note from Glenn Erickson, 2.13.07: For several years this review has had a long addendum talking about a 1993 book on H.G. Wells by Michael Coren, in which Coren makes the case that Wells' philosophy advocated the mass murder of Jew and non-whites to 'weed out the race.' It characterized Wells as condoning Fascist and totalitarian states like Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, and implied that Hitler may have gotten some of his ideas for Mein Kampf by reading Wells. I've received letters stating that Coren's attack was unjustified. I've recently dropped the entire discussion as I believe I responded in ignorance to Mr. Coren's arguments. Here is the uncut letter that convinced me that Coren was exaggerating, and that I was in error. My apologies.
Hello, Mr Erickson! I really admire the DVD Savant site and consider it one of the very best review sources on the Web. But I must respond to several comments on H. G. Wells in your review of Things to Come.
Michael Coren's The Invisible Man is the most poorly researched book on Wells I have ever read, and by far the most distorted. By omitting books -- and passages within books -- that contradict his viewpoint, by ignoring the historical context and chronological sequence of the work, Coren reveals more about his scholarship than he does about Wells.
Wells crafted ideas in speculative books and then followed these up with investigations. Thought-experiments like Anticipations (1901) and A Modern Utopia (1905) had their premises examined in books like The Future in America (1906), which deals in part with social reform and the "colour issue" as Americans themselves (both black and white) considered it. Coren has nothing to say about this book or about other self-imposed tests of Wellsian hypotheses -- The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932), The New America (1935), Phoenix, a Summary of the Inescapable Conditions of World Reorganization (1942).
Not only does Coren avoid the follow-up investigations; he ignores passages within books that contradict his version of Wells. A prime example: Anticipations, which describes a technocratic meritocracy that I, for one, would find dull and sterile -- a world roughly similar to the future of Things to Come. Coren seems to have skipped the part that describes a multi-racial Utopia in which race no longer matters, in which skin-colour, nationality and religion will no longer distort or limit our perceptions of other people. Your skin may be black, but you are not "a black"; your skin may be white, but you are not "a white"; you are an individual, a human being, period.
Coren seems to have missed that point, and to have skipped the passages on anti-semitism -- passages like this one: "I really do not understand the exceptional attitude people take against the Jews.... The Jew is mentally and physically precocious and he ages and dies sooner than the average European; but in that and in a certain disingenuousness he is simply on all fours with the short, dark Welsh. He foregathers with those of his own nation and favours them against the stranger, but so do the Scotch. I see nothing in his curious, dispersed nationality to dread or dislike. He is a remnant and legacy of Medievalism, a sentimentalist perhaps, but no furtive plotter against the present progress of things. He was the medieval Liberal; his persistent existence gave the lie to Catholic pretensions all through the days of their ascendancy, and today he gives the lie to all our yapping "nationalisms", and sketches in his dispersed sympathies the coming of the world state.... Much of his moral tradition will, I hope, never die."
You ask, in your review, "What was Hitler reading in hospital while recovering from wounds in WW1, or in prison while writing Mein Kampf?" I wish he had read Anticipations....
Coren is consistently evasive. He mentions The Science of Life (1929-1934) but not its refutation of the "Aryan" cult, its dismissal of "racial purity" as pseudo-scientific nonsense. He ignores the books and pamphlets against Hitler, the Nazis and Fascism; underplays the fundamental disagreements with Stalin; barely mentions the increasing respect for FDR and the New Deal. The idea that, as you put it, "Wells in decline became a booster of Fascist and communist regimes alike, in Italy and Russia," is completely untrue.
And yet, there are problems I have with Wells. Although not a racist, he was very much a Western chauvinist. And he did, in fact, promote eugenics. Yet even here, Coren has ignored certain details. In The Science of Life, Wells makes a distinction between positive and negative eugenics: positive, for breeding in desireable characteristics; negative, for breeding out undesireable ones (he suggests voluntary sterilisation with compensating rewards). Yet his desirable-undesirable critera have nothing to do with race: he emphasizes, instead, personal character -- Can this person learn? Cooperate with others? Think for herself? Or is he or she violent, stupid, vicious and incorrigible? Agree or disagree with this approach (and I disagree strongly: who has any right to irrevocably define or deny the "merit" of someone else?) the eugenics of Wells had nothing to do with racial purity, master-races or mass-extermination. And I give Wells credit for pointing out, in closing, that Western society may come to regard eugenics as undesirable or unacceptable.
To put it mildly, then, I have no respect for Coren's book on Wells. For better examples of scholarship, try Michael Foot's The History of Mr. Wells (1995), David C. Smith's H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), Anthony West's H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984). Yet the best guide to Wells is Wells himself... and the best starting point would be the 1942 Declaration of the Rights of Man. Best wishes, Mark Dillon. Quebec, Canada
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