Saturday, December 24, 2016

Things to Come (1936)

Director: William Cameron Menzies                Writer: H.G. Wells
Film Score: Arthur Bliss                                   Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Starring: Raymond Massey, Ann Todd, Derrick De Marney and Ralph Richardson

For this British production of Things to Come no less a luminary than H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of his novel The Shape of Things to Come. The film is a decidedly odd attempt at science-fiction in an age when Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were the only real sci-fi oriented productions in the theaters--unless you count super-heroes like Superman, which I don’t. William Cameron Menzies, who would go on to helm the fantasy The Thief of Bagdad three years later, is behind the camera and does a respectable job at trying to emulate the kind of large-scale set design that had already been used by Fritz Lang a decade earlier in Metropolis. Hollywood actor Raymond Massy was given the lead role, probably in order to assure box-office receipts from the U.S. As far as the acting goes, it’s pretty negligible, considering that most of the dialogue is simply philosophical platitudes about war and progress from Wells. As a story, then, the film does not succeed. The special effects are certainly phenomenal for the time and they are really the only reason to watch the film today. One of the interesting aspects of the film is how prescient Wells seems to be about the near future, but how far afield his ideas go the further he goes into the future. The film score by Arthur Bliss, while sections of it apparently remain popular today, is really just as bombastic as the screenplay and not very listenable either.

The film opens with one of Wells’ eerily accurate predictions. It’s 1940 in allegorical Everytown, at Christmastime with the world on the brink of war. The juxtaposition of the people going blithely about their holiday shopping with posters all around declaring the war coming soon is unsettling. Raymond Massey and Maurice Braddell are not happy about it, but Edward Chapman believes there’s nothing to the rumors. As Christmas day ends, however, so does the peace. Britain mobilizes, yet again, against an unnamed but obvious German foe. The men go off to fight, and air raids follow--though Wells imagined the worst, that the Germans would also load their bombs with poison gas. Though the whole thing was filmed in the studio, the carnage is pretty realistic, and the shot of a dead little boy is chilling. The war proceeds apace, but instead of ending in 1945 it continues on into 1955 and then 1960. Six years later there are rumors that the enemy will be defeated soon but, just as happened in the First World War, the end is accompanied by a worldwide epidemic that turns victims into infectious zombies. It isn’t until 1970 that the epidemic ends, but that only means that people can get back to fighting the war. Braddell is now the doctor in town and his daughter, Ann Todd, is married to soldier Derrick De Marney and working for the boss, Ralph Richardson.

One day Raymond Massey comes flying into town in a futuristic airplane and meets with Richardson. Massy and others like him have banded together to end the war. Using their superior intelligence and logic, they defy the medieval barbarism that the world has descended into in order to end it. Unfortunately the film ultimately degenerates into a battle between the anti-intellectual Richardson and those who follow the civilizing influence of science. While interesting at the start, the film really bogs down in the middle. Ralph Richardson chews the scenery as the The Boss of Everytown and one imagines Peter Sellers playing the part had the film been made in the year in which it was set. It’s not until the third act that the real science-fiction aspects of the film emerge, and they are impressive. The miniatures are phenomenal, and they are integrated seamlessly into the live action. Giant flying machines that look like P-38s, and automated digging machines all resemble future advances. By the time 2036 arrives, society has moved their buildings and industry underground, leaving the surface of the earth peaceful and bucolic. But of course there’s always someone who hates things no matter how beneficial they are. Enter Cedric Hardwicke, who thinks progress is evil and must be stopped. Things to Come, while not entertaining is certainly interesting, which is not necessarily a recommendation.

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