From first to last, Things to Come was intended to bear the unmistakable stamp of H. G. Wells’s personal vision. Adapted by the legendary science-fiction novelist from his nonfiction book of “future history” entitled The Shape of Things to Come, both book and film are earnest attempts to foretell the future, extrapolating from current conditions in the 1930s the course of human events over a hundred-year period. Divided roughly into movements, and thus analogous to a piece of music, Things to Come opens, prophetically enough, with the declaration of war in 1940, a prolonged war of attrition which the film envisions will last for decades. Later, following the outbreak of an epidemic known as the Wandering Sickness, society devolves into a new Dark Ages, in which the ragtag remnants of the old order fall under the sway of vicious warlords. In the final movement, a new utopian order arises, a strangely hieratic hybrid of socialist technocracy and benevolent despotism. In order to buttress his narrative through line, Wells employs the same stock types again and again, sometimes played by the same actors: Raymond Massey turns up on three separate occasions as stentorian superman John Cabal and his descendant Oswald, while Edward Chapman plays two versions of an accommodating every-schlub.
After signing an unprecedented deal with producer Alexander Korda stipulating that not one word of his script could be altered in transition from page to screen, Wells continued to exert an exceptional degree of control over the film, vetting nearly every aspect of the production from casting decisions to the prevailing aesthetic of set and costume design. Putting his name above the titles was only part of Wells’s bid for unqualified auteurist standing. By all accounts, Wells wanted his to be the only credit listed, relegating the names of all other contributors to a booklet that would be handed out at screenings. By its very nature, however, film is a collaborative medium. When it came to the director Korda assigned to the project, Wells was to be up against an equally forceful adversary. Things to Come was directed by William Cameron Menzies, a former production designer who was every bit as determined as Wells to impart his own distinctive sensibility to the material. Menzies’s visual aesthetic is characterized by angular compositions dominated by massive sets that tend to dwarf the actors, consigning them to their impersonal margins. The spectacle of disaster seemed to come naturally to Menzies, and he no doubt took great delight in building up the gargantuan set representing Wells’s anonymous British Everytown, only to demolish it through aerial bombardment and successive waves of devastation and deterioration.
As a result of these and other creative tensions, Things to Come is riddled with fascinating ambiguities that deepen and enrich this already visually dazzling production. For a film that decries the senseless brutality of mankind’s bellicose tendencies, it’s strangely enough dominated by images of armament—from the antiaircraft guns blasting away at an unseen enemy in an opening scene that portends imminent worldwide warfare to the massive “space gun” that blasts a manned spacecraft toward its rendezvous with the moon in the film’s star-struck finale. In a sense, Wells predicates the very existence of his utopia on this idea of transforming humanity’s weaponry into a means of exploration—sort of a scientistic “swords into plowshares” move—abjuring a more logical means of interplanetary transportation (rocketry, for example) in favor of call-and-response imagery he seemed to find more poetically satisfying. Wells was also apparently unfazed by the crypto-fascist underpinnings to his Wings Over the World movement: What with their all-black uniforms and patent leather jackboots, they uncannily resemble an elite SS squad. It’s also easy to detect none-too-subtle notes of Manifest Destiny manifest in Oswald Cabal’s concluding bit of rhapsodic rhetoric. At the end of a speech extolling “conquest beyond conquest,” Cabal gestures out to the glittering stars and demands: “All the universe—or nothingness. Which shall it be?” Having nearly arrived at the film’s temporal terminus, perhaps it’s hardly heresy to now suggest there has to be a third possibility inherent to this query, a midway point between universal annexation and existential annihilation.
Criterion’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer looks remarkably vibrant. The clarity and fine detail found on this high-definition presentation are certainly leaps and bounds beyond previous DVD editions, and even if some scratches and instances of graininess remain discernible, they’re never serious enough to be distracting. The monaural linear PCM track is somewhat limited in dynamics and range, yet it’s perfectly adequate to deliver H.G. Wells’s long stretches of rhetoric-laden dialogue as well as composer Arthur Bliss’s nuanced and evocative score. For the record, Criterion supplies SDH English subtitles for the feature film.
Things to Come arrives loaded with special features. David Kalat’s commentary track is packed full of background information on the film’s three primary creative forces: Wells, producer Alexander Korda, and director William Cameron Menzies. Kalat is particularly instructive covering Wells’s career trajectory from science-fiction novelist (an appellation he eventually grew embarrassed by) to lauded popular historian and social prophet who kept a running tally of his prognosticatory hits and misses. Kalat recounts Wells’s intense dislike for the unbelievable futurity depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as well as his efforts to ensure that Things to Come came out as unlike Lang’s film as possible, efforts that bore decidedly mixed results. Kalat traces the various cuts of the film, and the way that successive trims steadily diluted Wells’s vision. Kalat also mounts a convincing case for considering Menzies as an auteur, crediting this consummate visual stylist as the true director even on films where he only served in the official capacity of production designer. At times, Kalat seems a trifle too satisfied with his own rhetorical flights; even so, the track remains a compelling and always informative listen.
Christopher Frayling explicates the film’s design and special effects work, going into fascinating detail about Korda’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to recruit contributions from avant-garde artists and architects like Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier. A visual essay from Bruce Eder on the score details the unusual working relations between Wells and composer Arthur Bliss: Wells brought Bliss on board at an early stage of the writing process in order to work out a dense symphonic structural undergirding for the material. Criterion provides a four-minute selection of effects work contributed by famed Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, as well as footage from Jan Tichy’s 2012 video installation piece Things to Come, 1936-2012 that incorporates portions of this footage. There’s a recording (taken from an archival 78 rpm record, no less) of Wells reading an excerpt from his novel The Shape of Things to Come that describes the effects of the Wandering Sickness. Finally, there’s an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
Declamatory dialectics and dazzling visuals in about equal measures, Things to Come makes its high-definition home video debut in a crisply clean Blu-ray transfer, together with an excellent batch of explanatory supplements, from the Criterion Collection.