An impressive technical achievement, even if its didacticism threatens to overwhelm all other elements, H.G. Wells’ Things to Come is a sometimes prescient and sometimes naïve examination of the future. Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies, the film is arguably primarily authored by Wells, who wrote the screenplay based on several of his works, including the novel The Shape of Things to Come.
No fan of Metropolis, Wells apparently instructed the production crew to fashion a vision of the future that was the exact opposite of the “robot workers” and “ultra-skyscrapers” of Lang’s film, and both the sleek, gleaming utopian sets and the dilapidated, war-torn horrors are consistently stunning. No, Things to Come doesn’t surpass Metropolis, even in the production design department, although its ideas are probably more intriguing than that silly head, hands and heart stuff. Menzies, better known as a production designer than a director, isn’t totally successful at preventing the episodic film from lagging, but what it lacks in energy, it more than makes up for in visual splendor and affably solemn British performances.
Raymond Massey is the de facto lead as John Cabal, a businessman in the bustling British city of Everytown. The film opens on Christmas in 1940, a dynamic explosion of commerce shot with Eisensteinian rhythm. Life is good, business is booming and humanity is on an inevitable upward slope of progress, according to Cabal’s friend Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman). Cabal isn’t so sure; the specter of war looms large, and he’s right to be pessimistic. A bombing raid kicks off global war that very night, and soon, the world is plunged into destruction and disease.
Subsequent episodes reveal the increasingly primitive conditions humanity endures as the decades pass, with a warlord (Ralph Richardson) taking over the slums of the hollowed-out Everytown by the 1970s. But hope exists in a futuristic civilization called Wings Over the World (who knew the future would sound so much like a lame Disneyland attraction?), and by 2036, mankind has developed an impressive collection of underground cities, unfettered by independent countries.
As a philosophical treatise (and sometimes, the film really does feel like one), Things to Come isn’t all that successful, but the more the film abandons its hopscotching narrative and focuses on the visuals — that fantastic opening, the wide shots of the mod set design, the brief abstract interludes from Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy — the more fruitful its hefty ambitions seem.
The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion presents Things to Come in 1080p high definition and its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This is a pretty strong digital transfer, even if the numerous process shots and opticals tend to look a little softer and hazier than the rest of the film. Mostly though, we get a clean, reasonably sharp image with pleasing grayscale separation, nicely attuned contrast and consistent levels of film grain. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack isn’t so great. Dialogue is often muffled or slightly distorted, making it difficult to decipher a fair amount unless you’ve got it cranked. Effects and music are fine, if a bit hollow.
The supplements are strong and diverse for what could have been a mere curiosity title. The legendary David Kalat contributes an audio commentary, while featurettes from Christopher Frayling and Bruce Eder focus on the film’s production design and score, respectively. Footage of Moholy-Nagy’s designs that didn’t make it into the film show how the film could have looked more aggressively experimental, confirmed by an art installation piece that incorporates the previously lost footage. We also get to hear from Wells himself in a brief audio recording of the author reading from his treatment in 1936. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
The Bottom Line
The strong transfer and the impressive selection of extras make Things to Come well worth owning.