(6/10) H.G. Wells and William Cameron Menzies take us on an epic journey through the future in this pompous 1936 social prophesy, the last big SF film before the 1950s. The most expensive film made in Britain at the time, Things to Come boasts incredible sets and effects, but the script is stiff, the acting wooden and the viewer bludgeoned to boredom with the message.
Things to Come. 1936, UK. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written H.G. Wells, based on his novel. Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke. Music: Arthur Bliss. Produced by Alexander Korda. IMDb: 6.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
Things to Come was Great Britain’s most impressively epic science fiction film to date when it came out in 1936, rivalled only by the previous High Treason (1929, review). It had an estimated budget of about 350,000 UK pounds, or around 1,5 million US dollars; an absolutely astounding amount of money to put on a film in the UK back in that day. Penned by the 70-year-old sci-fi master H.G. Wells from his own 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, it was more an ideological treatise and a futuristic prophesy than a dramatic film. Although time has conjured up a good deal of latter-day apologetics who hail Wells’ vision and – rightly so – praise the production design, the simple truth of the matter stands: Wells was an awful screenwriter.
I have written a smaller essay on the socialist pacifist thinker H.G. Wells in my chapter on the literary origins of science fiction, please read it for more information on this remarkable man, who – don’t get me wrong – also happens to be one of my very favourite authors. Therefore, to make things simple for me this time, I shall quite ruthlessly borrow a brilliant condensation of the man and his career from Richard Scheib, the author of the website Moria:
H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction. The peak of H.G. Wells’s success, at least as a science-fiction author, was during the first decade of his publishing career, 1895 to the early 1900s. During this time, Wells published major works and laid down what are today still some of science-fiction’s major thematic preoccupations – The Time Machine (1895), which created the idea of the time machine and set in place much of the time travel story; The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), which, even though it did not name such, laid down many of the themes of the modern genetic engineering story; The Invisible Man (1897), the first invisible man story; The War of the Worlds (1898), the first alien invasion story; and When the Sleeper Awakes (1899), the first story in which a cryogenic sleeper awakes to encounter a future society.
What many readers who come to H.G. Wells through his science-fiction do not realise is that after around 1905, H.G. Wells fairly much abandoned the scientific romances that made his name and are his most popular works. H.G. Wells’s output of the decade ahead began to move towards serious fiction /…/ as Wells attempted to establish himself as a serious novelist. For the bulk of the rest of his career up until his death in 1946, Wells became an ideologue. During this time, Wells began to write essays on futurology and dedicated himself to finding a means of improving the world through scientific progress.
By 1933 H.G. Wells was something of a optimistic pessimist, if that makes any sense, and was writing daunting ideological-philosophical treatises on history, economics, and the future. WWI cemented his views of pacifism and he was terrified as he saw fascism on the rise in Europe, and the Great Depression of 1930 probably didn’t make the world look any more cheerful. In his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come he outlined a hundred years of future, starting with a second world war in 1940 and ending with the first trip around the moon in 2036.
It was this story that Hungarian-born British master director and producer Alexander Korda wanted to put on the screen almost as soon as the book was published. And in a brilliant coup (or so he thought) he got Wells to write the screenplay. But there were a few problems. First of all Wells had never written a screenplay for a feature film. Second, Wells hated science fiction movies. Third, the 70-year old author was by now much more interested in lecturing than entertaining. For a bit of a dramatic touch, the story two also drew from Wells’ 1897 story A Story of Days to Come. As not to make it too enjoyable, they also added bits from Wells’ economic and social treatise, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931). It took two and a half years and four different drafts, with significant help from Korda to get something that resembled anything that could be put on screen. And this was when production begun, in 1935.
Korda himself was having trouble enough producing, and wanted to hire another director. Since the script called for an until then unprecedented vision of a futuristic world and a number of giant sets, miniatures, mass scenes and elaborate models, Korda went for a man whose background wasn’t mainly in direction, but in production design. In fact, American William Cameron Menzies was the man they invented the title ”production designer” for – as opposed to merely calling him ”art director”. Menzies had impressed Korda with his design visions in films like The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Dove (1927) and The Tempest (1928) – the two latter earned him a combined Oscar in the first ever Oscar ceremony in 1928. By 1934 he had also directed six movies, perhaps most famously the 1934 Bela Lugosi death ray vehicle Chandu the Magician (review).
To design the lavish sets and models, Korda hired his own brother Vincent, who had already cut his teeth on elaborate period dramas like the Oscar-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934). It is unlikely, however, that Menzies didn’t design much of the film himself. Much has been made of the fact that Korda also hired the modernist artist and Bauhaus engineer László Moholy-Nagy to design some of the future city of Everytown, but his involvement was ultimately cut down to a 90 second scene of a man behind a sheet of corrugated plastic. Another common misconception is that H.G. Wells had more or less the final say in all decisions regarding the film – the fact is that he was made to believe he had, but ultimately he didn’t have much say in matters at all, the script excluded. He is said to have been on set constantly, exacting on many small details, but when the film was finally released, it had been cut down from 130 to 108 minutes, without consulting Wells, and was further cut down to 94 minuted in the US.
The plot, such as it stands, is split in three chapters. First we visit the near future Christmas of 1940 in the city of Everytown – a not very subtle metaphor for London, where John Cabal (Raymond Massey) and his friend Harding (Maurice Braddell) have trouble getting into the holiday spirit with the threat of war looming. The philosophical pacifist Cabal worries that war in Europe will spread to Everytown, but the jolly Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman, yes apparently men could be called Pippa in 1936) doesn’t let little things like wars dampen his spirits. And indeed WWII comes with an air raid, and impressive, crowded scenes of war and panic in the expressionistic, dark Everytown.
We next see Cabal as a fighter pilot having just crashed alongside an enemy, and together they save a girl and lament the futility of war.
Move on to 1970, when WWII is still sputtering on, but now as a low-intensity local tribal war in a post-apocalyptic future, bombed back to – if not the Stone Age, then at least the Dark Ages. Everytown in now ruled by a despotic bully who calls himself The Boss (Ralph Richardson), and bears a striking resemblance to Benito Mussolini – or as New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent put it in 1936: ”who might be mistaken for a comic opera despot, except for his impious resemblance to certain internationally prominent figures of today”. In addition to this, the war-weary population is haunted by a plague caused by a chemical weapon called the wandering sickness, which basically turns them into zombies, and they are therefore shot on sight. Dr. Harding is now desperately working on a cure with his daughter Mary (Ann Todd). The Boss is driven around in a horse-pulled old car and desperately searches for gasoline and engineers who can repair his old planes, so he can take up the fight with the mountain guerillas that are hounding his rule.
Enter the aged Cabal in a futuristic Flash Gordon-esque airplane and a strange black uniform reminiscent of Mars Attacks (1996). Cabal is now a captain of the world government called The Wings Over the World: ”the Freemasonry of Efficiency, the Brotherhood of Science”, and he calls for an end to all hostilities and the capitulation to the new world order, based on philosophy, scientific progress and pacifism. The Boss and his queen Roxana (Margaretta Scott) will of course have nothing of it, and instead make Cabal their prisoner, and demand he start repairing their old biplanes, which he obediently does, but just until The Wings over the World arrive in their gigantic futuristic airplanes, and start dumping ”peace gas”. Essentially this means that the Wings Over the World knock out all fighting factions with an anaesthetic long enough for the new world order to stage a coup and set up their own world administration.
Then we get to the film’s best part: a long montage showing the rebuilding of Everytown as a futuristic, white, clean, functionalism-inspired underground city with large Soviet-like statues depicting the man of the future. The montage is jam-packed with impressive miniatures and sets, mechanical models, and people in futuristic suits going about in futuristic labour-machines. Matte paintings, double exposures, back projection and montage techniques are used heavily – and the scale of it all nearly eclipses Metropolis (1927, review).
In 2036 the new world government has eradicated not only poverty and illness, but also religion and inequality, it would seem, as well as democracy. People now live exclusively in underground cities and spend their time watching television and strolling in air-conditioned shopping malls. The ruler of Everytown in now Cabal’s grandson Oswald Cabal (Massey again) – a benevolent dictator basing his rule on science and equality. This was Wells’ vision of a perfect world: a world ruled not by the majority of the people, but by an elite of philosophers, very much in the vein of Plato’s thinking. A plutocracy of the wise and good, if you will. The talk of the hour in Everytown is the coming trip around the moon – by means of a ”space gun” (basically the old Jules Verne idea of shooting a spacecraft out of a cannon).
But dissatisfaction brews within the ranks of the Luddites led by the sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), who feel that the new world is too ”white, too clean”, and that ”there must be and end to this progress” so that one might go back to living instead of preparing for living. Here Wells engages in the faux argument between science and art; the artists for some reason rise up to protest against Wells’ planned society. The film ends with a debate of monologues between Theotocopulos and Cabal at the hour of the moon flight, which naturally Cabal wins by claiming that progress, as well as the debate about it, must go on for eternity so that man can keep on perfecting himself. Off go the astronauts. Applause all around.
There are some different ways to tackle Things to Come. One may first and foremost see it as Wells’ prophesy of the future. This interpretation has been given credit mainly because of the fact that he was able to predict World War II and its aftermath with such precision – especially the hardships the war would bring for the civilian population. Wells also foresaw the television and the shopping mall.
But in truth, Wells was always more of an ideological speculator than a scientific predictor. And when one starts to look closer at the film, he actually scored more misses than hits with the film. That a war was coming was not difficult to predict in 1933, nor were TV and shopping malls. Malls were already going up across the world and the technology for television had been around for quite some years, even if there still wasn’t a practical application for the public. There are also a whole bunch of stuff he got wrong, like the first trip around the moon – off by 70 years, and in reality we actually landed. The film never clarifies why humans of the future live in underground cities, but it seems to be by choice. I mean, imagine the cost and resources for sustaining a whole population in caves, when we hardly even fit on the surface – overpopulation was clearly not a problem that concerned Wells. And no, the film doesn’t put forth the idea that the outside would be uninhabitable — apparently people have just chosen to live underground in the name of progress. I must admit to not having read the book, which probably gives some explanation to this — it’s also possible that the part of the film where this was explained was simply edited out.
Another jarring scientific inaccuracy is the use of a “space gun” for the lunar voyage. Even in 1936 both the scientific community and even the public at large were aware that if and when an attempt at space flight would be made, a liquid fuel-propelled rocket would be used. Kenneth George Godwin at Cagey Films explains: “Here Wells’ misunderstanding of film as a medium becomes very clear. For symbolic reasons, he wanted a giant gun to fire the capsule towards the moon, even though it was widely known that this was scientifically impossible (the occupants of the capsule would be crushed to death instantly) and actual rockets had already been built and tested (not to mention depicted convincingly in Lang’s Frau im Mond seven years earlier). Wells wanted to illustrate the idea that the technologies used previously in wars to destroy had now been transformed into tools of progress … but film being film, a very literal medium, the image of the space gun, although an impressive miniature, can’t help but look silly.”
The idea that scientists and philosophers would form a new world order was something that probably even Wells didn’t believe, but rather wishful thinking on his part – in this sense he shows us what he hoped the world could become, would we play our cards right. Ideologically there is much in Wells’ vision one happily subscribes to – that the basis of a new world order would have to be science, equality and and cooperation. Note that he omits the words freedom and democracy. Also note that The Wings over the World in their black uniforms, ordering people around, telling them what and how to think have an eerie resemblance to a certain national-socialist party that would set the world on fire just a couple of years later. It also seems that a new world order would have to rely on a strong ruler – a benevolent dictator chosen from a small group of philosophers, rather than from a democratic society.
In this way Wells was closer to the idea of Stalinism than he maybe was prepared to admit to himself (he famously lectured Stalin on how communism was supposed to be done). So even if Wells is delivering his ideology with a hammer (perhaps wisely passing on the idea of combining it with a sickle), and the film is basically a long monologue on the virtue of a scientifically based pacifism with socialist undertones – the ideology he presents is quite naive and a bit disturbing, at least watched in retrospect. The clinically clean and healthy world he presents as the intended future of the human race does eerily resemble not so pleasant outlooks, like those presented in films like Logan’s Run (1976) or The Island (2005). There also seems to be an omission of anything resembling a class struggle, a problem that seems to be getting worse by every year these days – in this sense his vision outlined in The Time Machine was more spot on. But again – this was his utopia, not necessarily his prediction.
As stated, the film is visually stunning, and Korda/Menzies have clearly studied both the biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille, German expressionists like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, as well as Russian montage theorists like Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein. The editing of the film is really the only thing that is dynamic and really exciting in this movie – not too surprising since Korda makes use of two future Oscar winners (William Hornbeck and Francis D. Lyon) and one Oscar nominee (Charles Crichton). Especially the shots of war in 1940 and the future montage still holds up today as some of the best of the era.
The dark proto-noir look of Everytown in 1940 is stunningly beautiful, and it is impossible not to draw a straight line from these scenes to Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982). But then as we move towards 1970 things start getting a bit silly. The costumes of the future city rulers look like ripped from Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1982), and what on Earth was costume designers René Hubert and John Armstrong thinking when they designed that collar on Cabal’s uniform? Things get even sillier in 2036, when we have now regressed to some sort of Neo-Grecian style, no doubt inspired by the many costume dramas of the era (as well as Wells’ obsession with Plato), with urbanites wearing Greco-Roman-inspired shorts, capes and gowns, along with the standard sci-fi look of impossibly broad and impractical shoulder puffs. If anything, the costumes of future Everytown resembles Flash Gordon (1936, review). Why do people always think we’ll dress like nitwits in the future?
The cinematography is good, although Menzies is more interested in showing off the sets and models than doing anything with the actors. This gives the film a static feel, and swinging the camera around a bit more would have created a greater dynamism in the movie. But future Oscar-winning French cinematographer Georges Périnal does a great job with what he’s got, and what he’s got are some impressive sets and miniatures, and those he certainly knows how to light and shoot. The shots of moving models are sometimes a bit shaky and clumsy, but that may be forgiven.
The big problem with Things to Come are not on the technical or artistic side, though. It is the script. Wells sets out to give an epic vision of the future, an ideological firebrand for peace, scientific planning and harmony in a seriously fucked-up world. And so he does, but the problem with his futuristic vision is that people don’t have much room in it. This dialectic epic doesn’t give the actors any chance to actually interact with each other, and the dialogue consists mainly of haughty monologues representing different sides of an argument. And even the argument is false, as Wells doesn’t bother to try and understand the opposition at all. His righteous lead Cabal is domineering, self-righteous and pompous, and all who oppose his ideas are basically dimwits. It’s not hard to take the side of scientific and equal brotherhood when your main antagonist (The Boss) spouts rants like a dime-store copy of Il Duce. Theotocopulos’ arguments are hollow and dumb. No Luddite has ever opposed progress for the sake of opposing progress. Luddites (or neo-Luddites) oppose certain progress on the basis of the perceived outcomes of this progress – such as in the case of the original Luddites, that technology would make textile workers unemployed. There are certainly cases to be made for technological scepticism, degrowth and postdevelopment theory, but Wells feels no need to try and understand these notions. For him it’s a case of everything or nothing, in the closing words of Cabal: ”If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?” It is, plain and simple, a propaganda film.
The argument for a peaceful society based on science and equality is still compelling today – although we might envision it slightly different than the stuffy elitist British upper-class slant that Wells and Korda put on it. Korda was a passionate defender of the old British royalist society, which clashed with his director brother Zoltan, who was more of a liberal socialist, like indeed Mr. Wells. Thus, all the blame for the very top-down ruled society of the future depicted in the film shouldn’t perhaps be directed at Wells, but also at Alexander Korda (though Wells was always more interested in the intellectual middle-class side of socialism, rather than with the working masses).
There is also something to be said about the futuristic vision of a strictly Caucasian society – and some casual sexism in the film which seems a bit jarring by today’s standards. But we can perhaps put this down to the standards of 1935.
H.G. Wells didn’t like science fiction films – and indeed there were not very many of them worthy of liking if you wanted any sort of intellectual stimulation in 1936. One that might have been to his liking – a socialistally tinted epic future vision of the class struggle – Metropolis – he called ”the silliest of films”. But what Fritz Lang’s epic has going for it, that Things to Come doesn’t, is interesting characters, human interaction. Simply: a heart to go with the head. (Another reason that Wells hated the film was that screenwriter Thea von Harbou was a techno-sceptic.)
There is a line to be drawn between Metropolis, Things to Come and 2001: A Space Odyssey. All three deal with the human condition and the future of man through the lens of epic, bombastic science fiction. But of these three, Things to Come is the one film that doesn’t require any independent thought from the viewer. There is not a single character in the film that we actually care about, which makes this an intellectual exercise, but an exercise where Wells does all the thinking for us. That we can pick his vision apart today in hindsight is no excuse for making an intellectually flat movie. And indeed, this is once again in line with Wells’ social vision. In his mind, democracy was a flawed system. According to Wells the people cannot make choices for themselves, but the choices must be made by an enlightened elite. Thus he is telling us what to think even in his film.
One might think that a cast including Raymond Massey, Cedric Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson would be something of a wonderful clash of acting royalty – all three being renowned theatrical actors. But instead we get stiff, pompous speeches and a lot of dictating to the heavens. Massey once complained about the lack of humanity and emotion in the script by saying ”For heart interest Mr. Wells hands you an electric switch”. That Wells’ vision was in many ways extraordinary, and that the filmmakers were able to visually formulate it with such grandeur is the film’s saving grace.
There have been almost 100 straight film or TV adaptations of Wells‘ books, and his influence of the genre is naturally immense. From Georges Méliès’ groundbreaking sci-fi film A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) to the upcoming 2020 remake of The Invisible Man, Wells’ vision has continued to inspire filmmakers. Unfortunately the author’s social commentary has often been not only omitted, but sometimes even reversed in the filmmaking process. One can only be grateful that the pacifist atheist Wells was no longer around to see the tacked-on military and religious pathos in the 1953 film The War of the Worlds (review). Thus it is a shame that this one film where his ideas are given full attention is such a preachy bore – and I am sure the young Wells would have agreed with me. The beauty of his early novels and short stories is that these ideas are brought forth as metaphors, almost hidden in the exciting tales he is telling – and this is ultimately why Wells is the legend he is today. We need both heart and head, both juvenile distraction and adult intellectualism. Remove one side, and any film becomes lopsided. And quite naturally, the audience also shunned Things to Come when it was released, and it received mixed reviews from the press.
William Cameron Menzies was famously the first person to be called ”production designer” rather than ”art director”, to emphasise that he was often responsible for the whole look of the film, rather than just a set designer. With his great vision and his experience not only as a designer, but also in direction, he was held in great esteem by producers and directors both in Britain and in Hollywood. In the making of the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind (9 Oscar wins), director Victor Fleming is quoted as having said to all departments that ”Menzies’ is the final word”. He also directed the famous sequence in the film of the burning of Atlanta (”Atlanta” here meaning the native’s wall from the 1933 film King Kong [review]). Menzies would return to science fiction once – as director and production designer on the hilarious 1953 classic Invaders from Mars (review).
Raymond Massey was sought-after Canadian stage actor, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, whom he played in four different stage, film or TV adaptations, one of which was Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939), for which he received an Oscar nomination. Things to Come was his only sci-fi appearance.
Ralph Richardson was just breaking into his stardom in 1936, as he would later dominate the British stage along with contemporary Laurence Olivier. Like Olivier, he was also a prominent film actor, and appeared in over 60 films. He was nominated for an Oscar twice, once as late as 1985 for his supporting role in Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes, acting alongside Christopher Lambert as Tarzan. Richardson won numerous awards for his stage and film work, including BAFTA, Saturn, Cannes and New York Film Critics Circle Awards. The Saturn Award came for his role in the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer.
Cedric Hardwicke carved out a respectable career in Hollywood, starring in many genre films in the thirties and forties, including The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), Invisible Agent (1942, review), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), The War of the Worlds (as the narrator, 1953), The Unkwown (1964), as well as the TV-series The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Outer Limits (1963). Hardwicke was brought on to Things to Come at the last moment. The role of Theotocopulos had been slated for British veteran actor Ernest Thesiger, famous for his role Pretorius as in Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). Thesiger had already filmed all scenes save one, when Menzies thought he wasn’t right for the role.
Charles Carson (in a small supporting role as great-grandfather in the beginning of the film) later appeared in the TV-series Avengers (1961) and The Curse of the Fly (1965). Derrick De Marney (as Richard Gordon) again touched upon sci-fi in his last film, The Projected Man (1966). Sophie Stewart (as Mrs. Cabal in the beginning) appeared in the aptly named Devil Girl from Mars in 1954. In a small bit-part as a pilot we see the beloved film and TV actor George Sanders, who would later appear in the sci-fi films From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Village of the Damned (1960), The Body Stealers (in the lead, 1969), Doomwatch (1972), and in the TV-series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1965) and as Mr. Freeze in the legendary Adam West-fronted Batman series in 1966.
Another bit-part player, the later beloved comedian Terry-Thomas incidentally played in another adaptation of Jules Verne’s moon adventure: Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967), as well as in 2000 Years Later (1969) and The Mouse on the Moon (1963). Adam Sofaer as The Jew was a noted stage actor who appeared in many period dramas, and who after appearing in The Twilight Zone became something of a staple in sci-fi series, including The Outer Limits, The Time Tunnel (1966-67), Lost in Space (1968) and Star Trek (1966, 1968). He also appeared in the movie Journey to the Center of Time (1967).
Some commentators, like Jeffrey DeCristofaro at Curnblog have called Things to Come ”a landmark both of science-fiction and cinema in general”. While this is true from the point of visuals, I feel that many reviewers ascribe the movie with inventing themes and tropes that already been around since the silent era. What it does, perhaps, is bring these together in a package in a way that had not been done before. I can understand that taken together, these elements may make the movie seem more prophetic than it actually is. But watch the Danish pacifist movies End of the World (1916, review) and A Trip to Mars (1918, review), the German futurist class-struggle film Algol (1920, review), the modernist sets and montages of French art film The Inhuman Woman (1920, review) or the Russian classic Aelita (1924, review), the epic futurism of Metropolis and the future war movie High Treason, and tell me that there is something present in Things to Come that cannot be found in one of these.
The film received mixed-to-positive reviews upon its release in the US. Frank Nugent at the New York Times, a frequent friend of SF films, wrote that it was “an absorbing, provocative and impressively staged production” and that “for all its melodramatic and fantastic dressing, [it is] probably as solid a prophecy as any”. Nugent noted that despite “overtones of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips” it was “a picture with ideas which have been expressed dramatically and with visual fascination”. Variety was less positive, calling it “an impressive but dull exposition of a bad dream”, noting that the film “is all very pictorial, very imaginative, very artificial and it runs on and on”. This was, of course, after half an hour had already been cut. Still Variety does congratulate the film for its cinematography and special effects, as well as the acting of Massey and Richardson, all of which are apparently “tops”.
Socialist author Kenneth Fearing at the Marxist magazine New Masses wrote a long and confusing review of the film which has such a sarcastic slant that it is difficult to discern when he is being genuinely positive and when he is just taking the piss out of Wells. But between jibes at the “sell-out” Wells, my impression is that Fearing likes the cartoonish SF elements, but is critical of its depiction of Wells’ future utopia. It is interesting to note that most contemporary reviewers found the film’s vision of the fashion of the future as absurd as we find it today. Fearing notes the vogue for “half shorts and half Roman toga, that Mr. Wells, with a fine balance between past and present, prognosticates for our descendants. God help them.”
Mort Weisinger, the then-editor of pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories gave the movie a downright glowing review, writing that it is “undeniably the most spectacular and fascinating of the various science fiction movies”. Weisinger concludes: “Things to Come is good entertainment for the follower of science fiction, and his enthusiasm for the technical wonders of the picture should make up for any deficiencies the plot and underlying philosophies may have”. Fans of DC Comics will perhaps remember Weisinger as the co-creator of characters like Aquaman and Green Arrow.
Most modern reviewers agree with my assessment of the flaws of Things to Come, but choose to glance over them in favour of the lofty ideas and the impressive design of the movie. Alan Bacchus at Daily Film Dose gives it 4/5 stars, calling it an “unheralded masterpiece of cinema and one of the all-time great science-fiction films”. TV Guide likewise awards it 4/5 stars, writing: “Though the film fails as a human drama, it succeeds impressively in the scenes of devastation and reconstruction–a purely visual experience […] Despite its flaws, Things to Come is a truly epic work which continues to fascinate”. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant echoes these sentiments, he also identifies the problems with the script and the dialogue, but states that “these considerations cannot diminish Things to Come’s near-astounding achievement as filmed science fiction”.
More on my wavelengths, giving the film 3,5/5 stars, is Richard Scheib at Moria, writing: “The film certainly has a wild visionary giddiness – the scenes of the rebuilding of the Everytown as a shining white scientific wonder city of the future have an outlook that sends a thrill of excitement. In all other ways though, Things to Come is a turgid polemic diatribe and a ponderous bore.” David Brooke at Blueprint Review represents the minority, giving Things to Come 3/5 stars. Brooke writes: “Things to Come is a fascinating watch for a number of reasons, but it’s not really a great film”.
This last is the point I am making. Things to Come is certainly a well-made film, and it is likewise an intelligent film, a film that there has been put a lot of thought and passion into making, whatever one thinks of its political and social message. Technically and visually it is nearly flawless. Still, it is not really a great film. Science fiction historian Gary Westfahl has stated that “those who complain about its awkward pace and uninvolving characters are not understanding Wells’s message, which is that the lives and actions of individuals are unimportant when compared to the progress and destiny of the entire human race”. I’d beg to differ. While I can probably agree with the message, and applaud it in a work of literature — I have pointed out my appreciation for Wells’ social ideas numerous times on this blog — Westfahl forgets that ideas do not movies make. While I find the UN declaration on human rights a profound document, it wouldn’t make for an especially riveting film. What a good filmmaker does is find a story that conveys the essence of the declaration without feeling the need to write it on our noses.
While it would be unfair to call the Things to Come a flop upon its release, it certainly didn’t do as well as London Films, H.G. Wells or Alexander Korda had hoped. It was the 16th most popular film in the UK in the 1935-1936 season — not bad, but certainly not a result expected from the most expensive film in the country’s history. The poor box office result nearly bankrupted London Films, which was barely saved by the international grosses. In the US the film grossed 900,000 dollars, another weak result, considering the top Hollywood movies took in 10-12 million dollars in 1936.
Today Things to Come is to an increasing degree finding itself on lists of the greatest science fiction films ever made, a position I think I have made clear that I don’t think that it deserves. Back in 1936 its most immediate effect was that it made science fiction ineligible for big-budget production for over 30 years — until Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey. A film is not a machine – it isn’t enough that it is efficient and well built. A film should also speak to your emotions, and for that you ultimately need a wonder that goes beyond the intellect – it needs a heart and a soul, and real people who bring these things to the screen. That is ultimately what this film lacks, and that is the reason it will always stand in the shadow of the giants.
Things to Come. 1936, UK. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written H.G. Wells, based on his own novel The Shape of Things to Come. Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell, Sophie Stewart, Derrick DeMarney, Ann Todd, Pearl Argyle, Kenneth Villiers, Ivan Brandt, Anne McLaren, Patricia Hillard, Charles Carson, George Sanders, Abraham Sofaer, Terry-Thomas. Music: Arthur Bliss. Cinematography: Georges Périnal. Camera: Jack Cardiff, Bernard Krasker. Editing: William Hornbeck, Charles Chrichton, Francis D. Lyon. Costume design: René Hubert, John Armstrong. Production management: David B. Cunynghame. Art director: Vincent Korda. Special effects: Ned Mann, George J. Teague, Edward Cohen, Ross Jacklin, Hary Zech. Visual effects: Jack Cardiff, W. Percy Day. Produced by Alexander Korda for London Films.