DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Things to Come, Blu-ray (1936/2013)

A historic first British big-budget sci-fi feature, but it doesn’t hold up so well anymore.

Published on June 27, 2013

Things to Come, Blu-ray (1936/2013)

Story (and actual direction): H. G. Wells
Cast: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Producer: Alexander Korda
Music: Sir Arthur Bliss
Studio: London Films/ITV/The Criterion Collection 660 [6/18/13]
Video: 1.37:1 for 4:3 Black & White
Audio: English PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Audio commentary by film historian/writer David Kalat, Interview with Christopher Frayling on film’s design, Visual essay by Bruce Eder on  Bliss’ music score, Unusual special effects footage by Moholy-Nagy, Video installation piece by Jan Tichy using that footage, Audio-only on 1936 78rpm reading by H.G. Well’s about the Wandering Sickness plague, Printed illustrated booklet on the film with essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
Length: 97 minutes
Rating: ***½ 

I was excited to finally get to view a restored version of H.G. Well’s famous sci-fi movie of 1936, which predicted a coming century of turmoil and progress, in spite of some terrible misses and goofs. (As well as to hear Bliss’ score with the images it was intended for.) The biggest goof was probably Well’s (who pretty much took over every aspect of directing the production from former set-designer Menzies—even the hemlines) idea of getting man to the Moon in the same way Melies had done in his 1902 silent A Trip to the Moon: using a giant cannon and shooting the astronauts there. Also, Well’s future world was ruled by a quasi-fascist ruling elite—advanced intellectuals (of whom Wells was of course a member). Also his notion that science and technology would be the force against which tyranny would fail. Sorry, Wells was a genius, but it doesn’t exactly work that way.

I had forgotten what a small portion (the latter quarter or so) of the feature shows the advanced future world. It opens with the last normal Christmas celebration in “Everytown” (again a poor choice of nomenclature), with newspaper headlines and signs everywhere in the streets about the possible coming war. Then it hits, without any specifics as to who the enemy of the Brits is, but we all get an idea.  (He was only 15 months early with the start of World War II.) The war is shown, by large signs for the years that come up on the screen, to go on for decades, and at one spot there is a smoke cloud that looks something like an atom bomb. Then as the enemy begins to lose, they resort to the awful Wandering Sickness virus. There is an inordinate amount of time devoted to the warlord of Everytown, a crude bloke who looks and acts like he stepped out of the Mad Max series.

The future seems to be ruled by airmen in propeller-driven planes and autogyros – no jets. While this was huge-budget project, the quick shots of the future world clearly show an unsuccessful mix of models and paintings with long shots of hundreds of people in futuristic broad-shouldered outfits. One major error at the beginning of the war scenes is the inclusion of a very futuristic-looking tank among the shots of normal 1930s military tanks—most confusing. Wells thought Metropolis was silly, but it’s the better early sci-fi film. There’s plenty things wrong with our world, but let’s be thankful it didn’t turn out as Wells foresaw, with the State pushing science and technology—as George Orwell put it—”…all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age.”

After having watched terribly faded and worn-out prints of Things To Come it was a pleasure to see this gorgeous remastering from Criterion, especially on Blu-ray.  At one point the original feature was 117 minutes long, but like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it got cut and we’ll never see those portions. The audio commentary track by David Kalat is worth hearing on a second viewing of the remastering—he’s done about 30 audio commentaries before so he knows what he’s doing.  Bliss’s music is OK, but it overuses the war-march theme, it’s poor mono, and I prefer his suite of the film music on CD.

—John Sunier




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