Criterion // 1936 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 13th, 2013
The future is here!
Though the great H.G. Wells is best-known for such beloved science fiction novels as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, he spent a pretty significant portion of his career offering non-fiction predictions of the future. In such subtly-titled works as The New World Order, The Way the World is Going and Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Work, Welles pondered the state of things and offered his own (often bleak) take on what the future would hold. His 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come essentially occupied the middle ground between the author's fiction and non-fiction work, offering a variety of fictional characters but primarily serving as yet another opportunity for Wells to predict what was just around the corner.
As such, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that the cinematic adaptation of the novel -- simply dubbed Things to Come -- feels less like a movie than an audiovisual essay of sorts. The 1936 production begins in the year 1940, detailing the beginning of a terrible world war (it wasn't too hard to see that one coming) and then proceeding to outline a number of startling developments which Wells felt might occur in the following decades (the second act takes place in 1970, while the third takes place midway through the 21st Century).
Though I have a great deal of regard for Wells as a writer and thinker, his portrait of what is required to reach a utopian future is greatly troubling. The film essentially presents a conflict between men of science and men of superstition, between intellectuals and ordinary men. It quietly endorses the notion of a benevolent dictatorship, as a new world order rises and kindly, gently wipes out nasty little things like democracy, religion and individual freedom. By remaining dedicated to the pursuit of science, these dictators manage to create a world free of disease, war and, um, humor (which one character describes as something which was only required to distract humans from the horrors of their daily lives in the past).
While I certainly sympathize with Wells' fondness for the potential of science and reason, the notion that simply granting smart progressives absolute power will lead to a world free of problems is nothing short of absurd. A dictatorship is a dictatorship, benevolent or not, and Wells' thoughts on the role of eugenics in the world of the future are far creepier than he intends them to be. Wells was one of the great cynics of the 20th Century, but his moments of optimism are bloody ridiculous. Wells seems to accept the idea that a bit of unpleasant genocide and mass oppression is necessary in order to move along into the grand and noble future, but his portrait of this grand and noble future is so sterile and dull that he undoes his own propaganda.
As the film progressed, I found Wells' quiet endorsement of fascism -- albeit a brand of fascism which lined up nicely with his own personal beliefs -- so distasteful that I often found myself sympathizing with the film's backwards-thinking villains. The middle section of the film features Ralph Richardson as a character named "The Boss," a power-hungry warlord who is both bloodthirsty and merciless. Even so, Richardson makes him a vital, deeply human figure, and I couldn't help but feel pity for him as he raged in vain while an army of eerily calm science-loving pilots took over his city. Alternately, the film's two heroic characters (both of which are played by the gifted Raymond Massey) are strangely antiseptic figures prone to ceaseless speechifying. The future the second of these figures presides over is indeed remarkable, but it seems so alien and lifeless. After a while, one gets the impression that if Wells had lived much, much longer, he might have written a piece pondering why Neo would be so foolish as to leave the relative comfort of The Matrix.
Still, Criterion is to be commended for their Blu-ray release, which does a fine job of placing this admittedly intriguing film in its historical context. The 1080p/Full Frame transfer is a rather attractive one, offering strong detail throughout. It's not as razor-sharp as the best Criterion releases of older films, but it looks good. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is okay, though the dialogue sometimes seems a bit pinched and the fine Arthur Bliss score isn't as vibrant as I wish it were. Supplements include a commentary with film historian David Kalat, an interview with Christopher Frayling on the film's production design, a visual essay from Bruce Eder on the film's score, some unused special effects footage accompanied by a new art piece employing that footage, a brief audio excerpt in which Wells describes the fictional sickness featured in the film and a booklet featuring an objectively-written essay by Geoffrey O'Brien. There's plenty of value here for those who want to know more about Wells or some of the larger intellectual debates of the era.
Criterion's Blu-ray release is strong all-around, but Things to Come spotlights H.G. Wells at his most foolish and irritating. Some legitimate insights and the film's considerable technical achievements are undone by the writer's embrace of fascism, which is a shame.
The film is guilty, but Criterion is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Essay
* Unused Footage
* Audio Excerpt