Directed by William Cameron Menzies in 1936 from a screenplay written by H. G. Wells (who used his own novel as source material), Things To Come was, at the time, an amazing technical achievement in filmmaking and that that point in time one of the most special effects intensive films ever made. While it goes without saying that filmmaking and special effects technology have very obviously grown by leaps and bounds since this picture was made, the scope of this film and the sheer, unbridled creativity shown by those who created it still has the power to impress.
The storyline spans time but in a nutshell, in the year 1940 the world goes to war on a scale never before seen. Scores are dead, casualties of the violence, and the conflict goes on for so long that eventually those left fighting forget what they're fighting for. Society is, essentially, in shambles. Industry has ceased and the survivors of the war have relegated back to tribal communities. As the 1940s turn into the 1960s, a plague wipes out most of those left on the Earth save for a few small pockets of survivors, one of which is named Everytown and is led by The Boss (Ralph Richardson). When a mysterious aircraft arrives from a destination unknown and lands at one of these communities, a male pilot named John Cabal (Raymond Massey) emerges and tells the group gathered around that there is a group of scientists that is dedicated to building society back to what it once was. The Boss responds by having Cabal locked up in jail.
As yet more decades pass, the building the pilot foreshadows comes to be and while the war has done serious damage to the surface, civilization begins anew underground where massive cities are built. Years later, in 2035, thanks to rapid and substantial advances in science the first flight to the moon is set to be launched but before that can come to be, a rebellion against technology, led by Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), begins to brew with those involved in the movement claiming that these scientific advances are what started the original war that decimated the planet in the first place.
Frighteningly prophetic in many ways, it's fascinating to watch this film from a modern perspective and realize how amazingly astute much of what Wells wrote as science fiction has in fact come to pass. The most obvious way that the film was able to pinpoint things that really would come to pass is in its depiction of the integration of technology into our everyday lives, but on top of that it makes interesting foreshadows towards the Second World War, the Cold War and even epidemics like the spread of HIV. The movie not only shows us what happens, but just as importantly, it takes the time to show us how those events come to pass as well. It's no secret that Wells had a bit of a leftist streak in him and there are times where his personal politics make their way into the script and therefore the dialogue but it never gets too heavy handed in this department and instead tends to let the visuals speak for themselves.
As far as those visuals are concerned, it's just as likely that it's this aspect of the production that makes this film an important one as it is the prophetic aspect of it. Loaded with highly detailed art-deco style, if some of the model work is less than convincing the actual design work on display in the film is jaw droppingly beautiful. The scope is massive, particularly once Everytown lies in ruins, but throughout the entire film we're treated to some really wild looking graphic design elements from the costumes to the different airships to the scenes of battle. Add to that the fact that performances are decent and the pacing is quick and you wind up with a simply fascinating slice of smart, creative and beautifully made science fiction, the kind that really should be better known and better appreciated than it is.
Things To Come arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection framed at 1.37.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Aside from a bit of softness, the image is strong considering the film's age. Contrast on the black and white picture is nice and stable and there isn't much in the way of print damage at all, no major scratches of blemishes to note even if some minor light scratches do appear throughout. Black levels are pretty strong and shadow detail isn't half bad, if far from super revelatory. All in all, most fans should be pretty pleased with the way that the movie looks on this disc, the high definition presentation obviously trumping DVD versions and offering a more film like presentation with better depth and texture.
The English language LPCM Mono track on the disc, the only option available, sounds decent even if there are spots where you can't help but notice that the levels jump around a little bit. Dialogue is easy enough to understand and the score sounds good. There isn't a load of depth to the track, but that's not likely to surprise anyone given the age of the film. Optional English closed captioning is provided but there are no alternate language or subtitle options offered.
The extras on the disc are plentiful and interesting and up to Criterion's typically high standard, starting with an audio commentary courtesy of film historian and writer David Kalat. There's a lot of great information about the filmmakers, background information on the source material and inspiration for the picture and the how the politics of the time leaked into the picture. It's a nicely paced and well prepared talk that is hands down the best extra on the disc, simply because it's quite comprehensive and really well researched.
Also on the disc is a twenty three minute long interview with writer and historian Sir Christopher Frayling that specifically covers the design work that plays such an important part in the movie, both in its look and in its tone. Frayling explains how many of the practical effects seen in the film were created and accomplished and discusses their importance. Film Historian Bruce Eder appears for sixteen minutes for a featurette/essay that covers Arthur Bliss' score. It too is quite interesting as it talks up the effect that the score has on the picture and offers up some interesting trivia about its creation. Rounding out the extras on the disc is a four minute collection of unused effects footage presented silently, a three segment showing off of footage of a â€˜video installation' piece by artist Jan Tichy that uses some of that footage and a 1936 audio recording of a reading from H. G. Wells's story focusing on the Wandering Sickness in the movie that clocks in at about four minutes. Menus and chapter selection are also included. Additionally, inside the keepcase there's also a full color booklet including some nice artwork relating to the film and an informative essay on the history of the picture written by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien.
Things To Come is, to be blunt, a brilliant film. Not only is it a remarkable technical achievement but so too is it an impressive and intelligent look at how and why societies can and do break down. Beautiful to look at and quickly paced, the quality of the film is done justice by this Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. The movie looks and sounds pretty good considering its age and the disc contains a nice selection of interesting and informative supplements. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.