Things to Come

Year: 1936

Production: London Films

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Starring: Raymond Massey, Cedric Hardwicke, Margaretta Scott, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman, Ann Todd, Maurice Braddell

Screenwriter: Lajo Biro, H.G. Wells

Based on H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (1933)

130 minutes, cut to 113 minutes; B/W


This Alexander Korda production was the most expensive and ambitious sf film of the 1930s - and, despite the growth of magazine sf over the next 15 years, the last sf film of any importance until the 1950s. Although Wells himself was closely associated with Things to Come, it is not the most satisfactory of the 1930s films based on his work, and was a box-office failure. The film is divided into 3 parts: the 1st, set in 1940, sees the start of a world war that continues for decades; the 2nd, set in 1970, deals with a community reduced by the war to tribalism until the arrival of a mysterious "airman", who announces that a new era of "law and sanity" has begun and quells the local warlords with "Peace Gas"; and the 3rd takes place in AD2036, when the ruling technocrats have built a gleaming white utopia and an attempt is being made to fire a manned projectile into space, using an electric gun, despite (vain) opposition from effete "artists" who are still maintaining that "there are some things Man is not meant to know".

Characterization and dialog are weakly imagined and the rhetoric is preachy and pompous, despite the famously overblown but moving concluding speech delivered by Raymond Massey, as he declares of Man: "... and when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning." Wells' belief that the future of humanity lay with a technocratic elite and his scorn for the arts seemed oddly old-fashioned even in 1936 - not to say undemocratic. But the visual drama (supported by Arthur Bliss' majestic musical score), despite static compositions, is exhilarating: the special effects were by the imported Hollywood expert Ned Mann and director Menzies was a great production designer (most famously for Gone with The Wind [1939]). Things to Come is one of the most important films in the history of sf cinema for the boldness of its ambitions and for the ardour with which it projects the myth of space flight as the beginning of humankind's transcendence. Wells published a version of the script as Things to Come (1935).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Though it was a failure at the box office and is slow moving to the point of boredom at times, Things to Come remains one of the most important sf films of all times. Its virtues are neither the philosophizing of Wells - under whose close supervision the film was made from his book, The Shape of Things to Come - nor the accuracy of the future history Wells and Biro produce, rather it is the vision of Menzies which brings to life Wells', now dated, ideas. Menzies, clearly a better art director than director of people, is unable to make much sense of the heavily pointed story but nevertheless he and art director Vincent Korda manage to animate Wells' blurry vision of the future.

The story begins in 1940 with the opening of World War II and then shifts to the desolation of 1970 where Everytown, now little but rubble, is ruled by Richardson's cruel "Boss" before Massey's Cabal arrives and with his peace gas turns Richardson and the inhabitants of Everytown into good citizens. The scene then shifts to 2036 in which Everytown has become a peaceful, prosperous, technological Utopia marred only by the pomposity of its rulers and the lack of imagination of its populace. Against this background, Hardwicke's humanist sculptor argues for a return to less sterile ways with Everytown's ruler (Massey again). The film's compromise solution sees their son and daughter sent into space together with the hope that they will begin a more compassionate society. Stripped of the supporting structure of Menzie's images, Wells' ideas may seem banal, but the movie has a self-confidence about it that remains unbreakable.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

Related links:
Classic Science Fiction Reviews at scifi.com


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