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H.G. Wells’ Things To Come – film review

August 14, 2013

H.G. WELLS’ THINGS TO COME

A prophetic vision of the future – if a tad stodgy.

h.g. wells - things to come 1936

Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Produced by Alexander Korda. Screenplay by H.G. Wells, based on his novel The Shape Of Things To Come. Starring: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle and Margaretta Scott. Year of release: 1936. Running time: 100 minutes.

With a budget of 350 thousand pounds, Things To Come was the most expensive British film of its day. Hailed as the English answer to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – in much the same way Tarkovsky’s Solaris was compared with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – William Cameron Menzies’ filming of H.G. Well’s’ novel The Shape Of Things To Come chronicles the century-spanning future history of the human race – beginning on the eve of global war in 1940 and ending with the launch of a manned mission to the moon one hundred years later.

Just as Metropolis has been criticized for its simplistic and overly-melodramatic storyline (a case of style over substance) – Things To Come also suffers in the writing department – with Wells’ heavy-handed eulogizing slowing down the narrative to a turgid crawl. Wells was seventy when he wrote this – his first and only screenplay – so perhaps it was his unfamiliarity with the form which resulted in such stilted characters spouting platitudes in place of natural dialog – real people simply do not speak like the cardboard characters in this movie. And speaking of characters – another flaw script-wise which only adds to the perceived ‘aloofness’ this film projects; is the lack of any continuing character (or set of characters) for which the audience can identify with and become engaged by. Having characters connected by heredity is simply not enough to become intrigued by them. In fact, it almost seems as if Wells is taking us on a journey into the future, witnessing changes in human history without the aid of his famous time machine, or a single protagonist to project ourselves into – resulting in a movie which feels more like a stodgy textbook on future history – than an engaging adventure yarn.

h.g. wells things to come poster 1936

If War Of The Worlds can be read as an allegory on the horrors of colonial genocide (particularly the decimation of the Tasmanian aboriginals at the the hands of the British Empire), then what exactly was Wells trying to say with Things To Come?     The film’s central premise that there can only be everlasting world peace and unity via the enforced implementation of a benevolent dictatorship seems a tad fascist and Draconian. Is Wells endorsing such an ideology? Is Things To Come nothing more than socio-political propaganda – designed to sell the concept of global governance     to the great unwashed whom Wells so despised?

Suspect agenda and ham-fisted dialog aside, the key aspects for which this movie     is ultimately remembered are its art deco designs for the 21st Century sequences, the intricate miniatures and its innovative music score.

American director William Cameron Menzies began his career as a set designer, working on such films as Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks and The Thief Of Bagdad, before moving into the director’s chair with Things To Come and later, the original Invaders From Mars. The preeminent visual stylist of his day, Menzies’ films were often criticized as being little more than vacuous exercises in spectacle over substance – an accusation levelled at more than a few blockbuster helmers currently working today. It is no secrect Wells and Menzies were at loggerheads when it came to Menzies’ perceived preoccupation with getting the visuals of Things To Come just right.

things to come supermachine

The model miniatures which Wells felt so distracted Menzies from focusing on story are impressive for their time. The gigantism of the world-building machines is brilliantly conveyed – using front-screen projection in order to place tiny human figures within these futuristic landscapes. The shear scale of these settings recall similar scenes of massive Krell architecture seen in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet twenty years later. These scenes of the rebuilding of Everytown as a subterranean metropolis are the definite highlight of Things To Come.

With its foretelling of the Second World War, the movie has often been cited as a prophetic film – although the actual war itself only lasted half as long as depicted. Faux newsreel images of modern tanks rolling into battle are remarkably similar to those seen during the war. And the bombing of Everytown which opens the movie – showing the city’s inhabitants seeking refuge in underground tube stations, as waves of enemy aircraft brave AK-AK fire to unleash their payloads – so resembles the London Blitz of 1940, that it has been said Hitler himself screened the movie to his cohorts (including head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring) – in order to spur them into action. In addition to these startlingly familiar scenes from history, the horse-drawn automobile seen during the post-war pestilence middle section of the film (in this instance – a Rolls) is an image which would become de rigueur in countless post-apocalyptic movies ever since.

Interestingly, noted sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, who always considered Things To Come to be his all-time favorite sci-fi film, was so enamoured with the movie – he had it screened for director Stanley Kubrick in preparation for their collaboration on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much to Clarke’s chagrin however, Kubrick was less than impressed with Wells’ film and in fact preferred the aforementioned Forbidden Planet.

h.g. wells' the shape of things to come poster

A self-styled sequel of sorts appeared in 1979. Misleadingly calling itself H.G. Wells’ The Shape Of Things To Come, this Canadian-lensed film (starring Barry Morse, Carol Lynley and a scenery-chewing Jack Palance) had virtually no connection with the earlier film (aside from using some of the same character names) – and was more a low-rent Star Wars cash-in – than anything related to Wells’ novel.

With its appealing art deco design and memorable music score by Arthur Bliss – which, amazingly, was the first symphonic score ever composed for a feature film – Things To Come is a fascinating, if flawed curio for anyone interested in seminal     big-screen sci-fi, vintage visual effects techniques and the works of H.G. Wells.

3 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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3 Comments
  1. Excellent write-up. Not the sort of thing I’ve ever watched so don’t have much to add. I’ve always meant to watch Metropolis, though…

    • gregory moss permalink

      Yeah Metropolis is in a class of its own. If you do decide to see it – make sure you watch the recent 150 minute restoration from 2010 – this is the most complete version of the film currently available. And it looks magnificant on Blu-ray!

      • Xenolicker permalink

        I’ll wait for the 3D conversion, thank you…

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