A number of movies have been based on the stories and writings of H.G. Wells, but no film is a better reflection of him than 'Things To Come,' primarily because it's the only movie with his name attached to it in which Wells himself was closely involved. Even the phrase "closely" is an understatement in that, even though the film was directed by William Cameron Menzies and produced by Alexander Korde, Wells had unprecedented say in what happened on-screen. He inked an agreement with the studio that his script had to be followed verbatim and he was on the set every day, with apparent veto power over any filmmaking decision. Reportedly, when it came time for the final cut of the movie, Wells had much less of an input. Still, when one sits down to watch 'Things To Come,' one should view it with the knowledge that it’s the closest thing to a movie actually made by H.G. Wells as has ever been put on screen.
Released in black and white in 1936, the movie's visuals still hold up quite well – using everything from models to rear-projection to tell its story. At the time, 'Things To Come' was the most expensive movie ever made in England, and it's not hard to see why. However, even though the visuals are impressive to view, the actual acting and dialogue are less than spectacular. The movie lends itself to long-winded speeches about humanity and war that just come off as preachy. They're certainly reflective of Wells' world view at the time, but they don't lend themselves very well to dramatic storytelling.
'Things To Come' begins in "Everytown" in 1940, where it's Christmas Eve and the locals are celebrating. But along with all the Christmas cheer are posters and protesters warning that a world war is on the brink of starting (pretty good foresight by Wells here, as World War II would break out in late 1939). We see a gathering at a home around a Christmas tree, where John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is having difficultly relaxing because he's too worried about a war starting. Sure enough, before the evening is over, the town is bombed by the enemy, marking the beginning of a global war.
We next see Cabal as a pilot who shoots down an enemy aircraft. He lands his plane to pull the other pilot from the wreckage, but soon notices poisonous gas starting to surround the area. He begins to put a mask on his captor, but notices a little girl running towards him. The injured pilot tells Cabol to give the mask to her, and Cabol and the little girl flee the scene, with Cabol giving a gun to the other pilot so he can shoot himself before he suffers additional pain from the gas.
A montage of war scenes follow, and we're back in Everytown in the year 1970. The town is in ruins and run by a dictator (Ralph Richardson). We also learn of "The Wandering Sickness," a disease that has infected and killed over half the world's population and turns people into mindless beings until they eventually die (it's not a stretch to deduce that the idea for zombies originally started with Wells' idea here). An older Cabal shows up, this time in a futuristic plane and wearing a futuristic outfit. He's come to notify the town that the rest of the world is now under a single organized government, and soon the "Airmen" that he represents will be coming to Everytown to make it part of the new world order. There is resistance by the dictator, and when the Airmen come in their large planes, he sends out the town's biplanes to attack them, but they're no match. Gas bombs are dropped on the city, but it turns out they're just to temporarily knockout the citizens. However, when they go to wake the dictator, they find out he is dead.
Another montage follows, but this time it’s a montage of technical progress. Then we're back in Everytown in the year 2036. Civilization lives in large underground complexes. Everything is bright, shiny, and spacious. Oswald Cabal (the grandson of John, and also played by Raymond Massey) is head of the local council and the city has plans to send his daughter and her boyfriend on a trip around the moon – the next step in mankind's evolution (Wells was pretty good at predictions, but he underestimated man going to the moon by almost 70 years). However, another local politician thinks mankind should stop their progress since everything is satisfactory. He rouses up the local population and together they set out to stop the launch of the rocket, which will be done through a giant space gun. Cabal is able to see that the rocket is launched in time, and the movie concludes with him giving a speech about how mankind's mission is to conquer all the planets in the universe.
Although 'Things To Come' is obviously a science-fiction movie (or some would refer to it as a speculative-fiction movie), it's loaded with politics as well, and there's no doubting Wells' socialistic ideas and his hopes for a utopic world in the future. The main difference between Wells idea of socialism and, say, that of Marx, is that Wells foresaw a society where the scientists and those of great technical knowledge ran the show instead of political leaders. While 'Things To Come' is a bit too high-handed for its own good, it does offer a dramatic roadmap into Wells' ideas and thinking.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Things To Come' lands on Blu-ray in one of Criterion's standard cases (which, as buyers know, is more like a DVD case than a Blu-ray one) with a booklet containing an essay on the film by critic Geoffrey O'Brien. The back of the slick (seen on the inside of the case) features a still from the movie along with a list of the chapter selections. As is the way with most (all?) Criterion movies on Blu-ray, there are no front-loaded advertisements or trailers. The menu also follows Criterion's standard format, with the options along the left of the screen, most of which open up to reveal additional information when you click on them.
When reviewing older films on Blu-ray (especially something as old as 1936's 'Things To Come'), it's often hard to know how to fairly rate the video quality without having an idea of how poor the source material was that had to be restored. Here, the only information we get is that the movie was restored from a 35mm print held by the British Film Institute. When something as old as 'Things To Come' goes through a restoration process, most releases include a featurette so that viewers have an idea of how the new version compares to the old. However, we don't get one here.
With that in mind, the video quality here is only average, even when taking into account the age of the movie. There are noticeable lines (vertical) and other mild defects in the picture throughout the movie, and the film overall has a very "soft" look to it for a 1080p presentation. Slight jittering of the picture is rare, but I did note it happening on several occasions, often during scene transitions or upon the change of camera angles. A healthy, but not overbearing, amount of grain is visible – so from that standpoint, this transfer manages to maintain a film-like look throughout. All in all, though, there are no major issues with the presentation that would distract from one's enjoyment of the movie.
The only audio option here is a lossless LPCM 1.0 track, which puts all the audio up front. The music in 'Things To Come' sounds decent in mono, but the dialogue does sound somewhat muted and/or "muddy." This most likely has far more to do with the age of the source material than any issues with the updated track. The good news is that I detected no instances of popping, hissing, or audio dropouts on this track, which is a rarity for a film of this age and a sign that care was taken in updating the audio.
Although not listed in the menu options (but noted on the back box cover), subtitles are available in English SDH – you'll just need to use your Blu-ray remote to access them.
Taking it at face value, simply as a piece of entertainment, 'Things To Come' isn't a film I would normally recommend. It's visually interesting for the time period in which it was made, but dramatically speaking it's too wordy and not very engaging. However, for historical (both film history and political history) reasons and because it's the best on-screen example of H.G. Wells' world view and mindset ever put on film, 'Things To Come' is worth adding to the serious film collector's shelf. It's an important piece of cinematic history.