H.G. Wells' Things to Come answers any questions you might have about what the world would be like if Dilbert ruled it. Remember, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart never asked those questions.
"Their grandchildren will see even more wonderful things. Progress, progress. I'd like to see the wonders they'll see."
As I write this review of H.G. Wells' Things to Come, the new year is just beginning, with all of its promise. Thus, it's a good time to reflect on future predictions past, of food pills, rocket packs, and teleporting machines. Or, as in this case, war, plague, and world government.
When this movie (adapted by H.G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come) came to the screen in 1936, Europe was facing German aggression and the possibility of war. It made Wells's tale of a 30-year war starting in 1940 seem timely and possible. Time overtook this movie, first making it too painfully close to events as war broke out in Europe in 1939, then proving it irrelevant as peace came in 1945.
While multiple big-screen versions of The War of the Worlds have proven that it didn't take much to update his more allegorical stories for the Cold War or a world facing terrorism, Things to Come made the commentary on world events that's often present in a Wells novel more direct. Thus, this Wells fable has faded a bit over the years.
Facts of the Case
The war rages on, through 1945, 1950, 1955, 1960. 1966 is a banner year, since it gives us a glimpse of the wandering sickness, which eventually gets its bedridden victims wandering in a sort of sleepwalk out into the street, so that they may be shot by panicked authorities. Bold legends on the screen indicate the years, until we finally get to:
After a montage of larger and larger gadgets and structures being built, we jump forward to:
If you consider that Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon in 1969, before World War II even ended in H.G. Wells's alternate version of the world, you'll see how far the famed futurist was from his mark. What was this technocratic world government doing until 2036? Probably coming up with brave new DVD formats so everyone would have to triple-dip. No wonder Theotocopulos was so mad!
Those of you who snap up DVD sets of Space: 1999 and other outdated sci-fi might be looking for kitschy fun here. Even with out-there details such as a warlord wearing a Genghis Khan-style fur coat in 1970 and everyone wearing togas in 2036, H.G. Wells's high-mindedness dampens enjoyment of some of the movie's sillier aspects. His characters are constantly speaking profoundese, stuff like "If we don't end war, war will end us" and "All the universe or nothing! Which shall it be?" The movie looks great, though. The worlds of Things to Come, apparently created with matte paintings and miniatures, were amazing, the height of 1936 movie technology. Even today's jaded movie fans will be impressed by the rubble of 1970 and the giant subway station that Everytown becomes in 2036.
The second segment works best, thanks mainly to Ralph Richardson (Anna Karenina, The Man Who Could Work Miracles) as the aforementioned warlord, who presents himself as a minor speed bump on the path to global technocracy. He's a petty dictator, spouting orders that can't be fulfilled and claiming, "The state's your mother, your father, the totality of your interests." His performance is slightly comic, since the fear in his eyes is conveyed clearly even as he keeps blustering. Margueretta Scott (All Creatures Great and Small) makes a good partner for Richardson as the warlord's moll, who talks tougher than he does but dreams of the larger world beyond Everytown. These two give performances that create characters, not just archetypes.
Raymond Massey, playing John Cabal and descendant Oswald, comes across as arrogant and odd, so much so that you'd think he was a Martian when he lands his plane in 1970 Everytown. A combination of Dilbert and Ray Walston's Uncle Martin, he presents a confidence in technology that unnerves his opponents. If you're not sold on Wells's technocracy, he might unnerve you, too.
Most of the actors make little impression, since they're only here to make a statement in profoundese and move on. The Boss is the only major character who lacks a name, but the characters are drawn so one-dimensionally that I'm surprised Wells bothered naming any of them here. The dialogue tends to be delivered with a formal stage style that makes it seem even more unnatural today.
Legend Films presents H.G. Wells' Things to Come in both black-and-white and colorized versions in its new DVD release. Colorization doesn't completely erase the flickering and grain present here, particularly in the first segment. These things aren't unusual for a film of this vintage, though. Though it isn't showy, the colorization does add enough extra visual punch to the war scenes in the first segment to make them more vivid and realistic, even shocking at times. The color helps bring Things to Come to life.
The mono soundtrack seems to have held up well over the years, with both the music and the dialogue coming through clearly.
The extras here—an interview with Ray Harryhausen and a featurette on the colorization process—are short but informative; if you also buy Legend's edition of She, you'll find them repetitive. Most unusual is an assortment of "Classic Sci-Fi Toy Commercials" from the 1950s and early 1960s (exact dates not included), probably inspired by the Christmas theme in the first segment of Things to Come. These tout the joys of space-age toys like the Ideal Countdown Electronic Missile Base and Mr. Machine, whose gears you can see turning inside his plastic head. One ad, for Robert the Talking Robot, follows the mechanical engineer who created Robert as he brings his creation from idea to reality; you can even see the gears turning inside the engineer's head. Cool!
The DVD case, in listing the attributes of its contents, makes two errors: there's no sign of a Ray Harryhausen commentary that I could find on this disc; also, this version colorizes a shorter American cut of Things to Come, not the 100-minute original indicated on the case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I recently read "The 64-Square Madhouse," Fritz Leiber's 1962 tale about a chess-playing computer, in the A Pail of Air anthology. I can't wait to see if anyone actually manages to program one! Just kidding. My point here is that science fiction can be entertaining, even when it is outdated.
H.G. Wells's vision of a global government isn't one I'd want to see made real. If anyone tries to sell you on the idea, give them a wide berth, since what they actually want is a global government run by people just like themselves. Wells himself wanted a world run by technology-minded visionaries. But would he have wanted a government run by a warlord like Ralph Richardson's Boss, especially with any dissenters having to leave the planet?
The technology of Wells's world of 2036 seems feasible today, though; we've had men on the moon, and underground or skyway cities protect Canadians from the cold and Texans from the heat. On the other hand, the idea of one person cutting through the cacophany of personal communications as Theotocopulos already seems remote; Wells didn't consider the possibility that when people have more personal choice, they'll take it. That leads, of course, to my point:
Ideals, whether of government or of climate, vary from person to person. These one-size-fits-all-or-else worlds are nice to visit on the screen, but you wouldn't want to live in someone else's ideal world.
The flaws in Things to Come are clearly evident now that we know that H.G. Wells's vision of war and peace hasn't come. The author and moviemakers are guilty of overreaching. This vision of a future that thankfully will never come to pass still makes an interesting time capsule for science-fiction fans, though its serious, thoughtful nature ironically takes away some of the enjoyment today.
Progress, progress. Anyone still working on those pepperoni pizza food pills?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
• Interview with Ray Harryhausen
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