Things to Come

Tagged: Film

Film (1936). London Films. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Lajos Biro, H G Wells, based on Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933). Cast includes Maurice Braddell, Edward Chapman, Cedric Hardwicke, Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott and Ann Todd. 130 minutes, cut to 113 minutes. Black and white.

This Alexander Korda production was the most expensive and ambitious sf film of the 1930s – and, despite the growth of magazine sf over the next 15 years, the last sf film of any importance until the 1950s. Although Wells himself was closely associated with Things to Come, it is not the most satisfactory of the 1930s films based on his work, and was a box-office failure. The film is divided into three parts: the first, set in 1940, sees the start of World War Two in Poland, a global Future War that continues for decades; the second, set in 1970, deals with a community reduced by the war to tribalism until the arrival of a mysterious "airman", who announces that a new era of "law and sanity" has begun and quells the local warlords with "Peace Gas", initiating a Pax Aeronautica; and the third takes place in 2036 CE, when the ruling technocrats have built a gleaming white Utopia and an attempt is being made to fire a manned projectile into space, using an electric gun, despite (vain) opposition from effete "artists" who are still maintaining that "there are some things Man is not meant to know".

Characterization and dialogue are weakly imagined and the rhetoric is preachy and pompous, despite the famously overblown though eloquent concluding speech delivered by Raymond Massey, as he declares of Man: "... and when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning." Wells's belief that the future of humanity lay with a technocratic elite and his scorn for the Arts seemed oddly old-fashioned even in 1936 – not to say undemocratic. But the visual drama (supported by Arthur Bliss's majestic musical score), despite static compositions, is exhilarating: the special effects were by the imported Hollywood expert Ned Mann and director Menzies was a great production designer (most famously for Gone With the Wind [1939]). Things to Come is one of the most important films in the history of sf Cinema for the boldness of its ambitions and for the ardour with which it projects the myth of Space Flight as the beginning of humankind's transcendence. Wells published a version of the script as Things to Come (1935). [PN/JB]

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