Movies directed by non-directors often leave clues as to what the helmer’s day job is. Actor-directed films are often visually terse and focus on performers, while those directed by cinematographers and graphic artists tend to have a strong, eccentric eye. Things to Come, adapted from an H.G. Wells story of nearly the same name, was directed by William Cameron Menzies, a name possibly familiar to trivia nerds as the first ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Menzies was definitely operating within his wheelhouse on Things to Come, which contains production design work of the highest order, a benchmark of International Style science fiction. But this modernist future comes bundled with muddy politics and mixed messages about the importance of progress.
The film spans nearly 100 years, staring off in Everytown, UK on Christmas Day 1940. The threat of war looms over Europe, and John Cabal (Raymond Massey) fears the worst. These fears end up being totally justified, as an unnamed enemy proceeds to carpet-bomb the shit out of Everytown. The war drags on for years, and then decades, effectively shelling Britain back into the Dark Ages. Thirty years on, war continues, even though supplies are dwindling, resources are scarce, and the once-serious threat of the “wandering sickness” has been eradicated. Everytown is now led by a dictatorial warlord (Ralph Richardson) alarmingly focused on consolidating power and prolonging the war effort. An older Cabal returns to his old stomping grounds as a member of an organization whose tenets include the abolition of war, the abolition of sovereign states, and the fostering of scientific progress. Ideologies clash. The film has beats that wouldn’t feel out of place in a war film, but the main narrative thrust comes from the conflict between Luddism and progress.
Things to Come is commendable if only for its sheer scope; the massive sets, the bombastic score, a small army of extras, and a bottomless bag of sophisticated analogue effects, including a brilliant montage of futuristic technical marvels that signal the beginning of the third act. In such instances, when the film places its avant-modernist visual aesthetic front and centre, Things to Come plays like an massive Constructivist riff on Man with a Movie Camera (having Bauhaus vet László Moholy-Nagy on board to provide visuals certainly helps in that regard). But when the film slows down or focuses on Massey’s speechifying, the film loses steam. It isn’t so much that the “old ways vs. new ways” tract is a well-worn one, but that there are strange political underpinnings to this version of the narrative.
Wells, through the bias of this film, implies that the only way that humanity can be saved from itself is through the systematic implementation of a worldwide benevolent, iron-fisted technocracy, tradition and religion be damned. It’s also implied that a single world-spanning nation-state can be excused from invading someplace if it’s done in the name of progress, which has unpleasantly similar connotations to invading a country to set it free. The core idea at play, that pushing the scientific vanguard will ultimately help us progress, is commendable, but ethics of it are left ill-addressed.
Ultimately, though, the film’s aesthetics and naive humanism win out against its fuzzy ideological stance. Technical marvel that it is, Things to Come is assembled in such a way that it can only invite awe. This extends to the DVD itself; the Criterion transfer is typically gorgeous, the booklet thick with essays and spec-wonk goodies. The included special features are a bit thin, but that can be excused for a film approaching its 80th birthday. What is included, especially the interview with Christopher Fraying that contextualizes the film’s visual design and the unused Moholy-Nagy footage, is of high interest. Given this, it’s fitting that Things to Come excels not as a pro-modernist tract like Wells intended, but as a piece of long-form visual modern art.
Things to Come is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.
Directed by William Cameron Menzies; written by H.G. Wells; adapted from The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells; starring Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, and Cedric Hardwicke; 97 minutes.