Things to Come (1936)

Genres - Science Fiction  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Sci-Fi  |   Run Time - 88 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Things to Come came about because of a multitude of forces and events. Producer Alexander Korda wanted to dramatize the future -- as projected through the imagination of author H. G. Wells -- in the same terms that he had dramatized the past, in movies such as The Private Life of Henry VIII. And Wells -- by then more of a political philosopher than a best-selling author -- was intrigued by the idea of putting his visionary work on the big screen. Additionally, he saw an opportunity to outdo a then-recent attempt at science fiction -- Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) -- that he had ridiculed; what he turned in was a script that asked many of the same questions that Metropolis had, about how man and technology can and should interact, but without the religious symbolism that filled Thea Von Harbou's screenplay for Lang's movie.

Wells' screenplay, written in uncredited collaboration with resident London Films screenwriter/dramaturge Lajos Biro, was peopled, nonetheless, by characters intended to voice and embody various philosophical ideas and accepted human traits, rather than stand as fully developed dramatic creations. There was also a good deal of unselfconscious erudition built into the script -- one key character, "Pippa" Passworthy, has a nickname derived from an 1840 Robert Browning verse opera (Pippa Passes), which would have seemed a lot less obscure among England's educated classes in 1936. Korda gave Wells a level of control over the production that was unprecedented for an author or even a screenwriter (and Wells was both) -- right down to the casting of roles (and recasting them after they were filmed) -- and choices of costume, set design, and effects, but the movie still ended up with many of the attributes associated with Korda's London Films, which was inevitable given the fact that most of the crew came from the studio's ranks. These attributes include exceptionally high production values, striking sets and costumes, and a carefully laid out script with a handful of major actors in finely wrought roles -- as great and would-be great men -- surrounded by fine character players. (Ironically, Wells had originally proposed what would have been a much bolder, more ambitious movie, in which the music score -- authored by Arthur Bliss, then the leading figure in avant-garde composition -- would have been composed first, and the screenplay written and the movie shot to the score, but Korda rejected this notion). The resulting movie's credentials and attributes were impeccable, and visually it is a stunning work, and the portrayals of various iconic and symbolic characters makes the movie seem all the more profound and important, in this setting. But for all of that grandeur of gesture and dialogue, and its visual opulence, and extraordinary special effects, Things to Come was a critical and box office disappointment, a curiosity that left viewers and reviewers of the time cold, principally because it failed to deliver in one essential area: drama.

Wells may rightfully have found fault with some of the logic, science, engineering, and ideology of Lang's Metropolis, but the characters in that movie, whatever their dramatic shortcomings, at least displayed some emotional resonances, with each other and to the audience -- not so the characters in Things to Come, who are almost self-consciously symbolic, rather than dramatic. Director William Cameron Menzies was one of the cinema's great production designers -- in fact, the man who defined the job -- but working within the constraints of what Wells would allow, he was unable to deliver a dramatically satisfying film. What Menzies, Wells, and Korda between them devised was a technically beautiful, visually stunning movie that was so dark emotionally, and devoid of emotional life at its center, that audiences in 1936 couldn't embrace it in the least. Raymond Massey and the rest of the cast try hard, within the limits of the script, but only Ralph Richardson, in the role of the brutish, fascistic Rudolph, and Margaretta Scott as his ambitious and far-sighted wife Roxana, bring much that is emotionally identifiable and resonant to their roles, which are confined to the middle of the picture. (Scott had a second role, in the last third of the movie, as the descendant of her earlier character, but it was cut out during the final edit before release, though stills of her in that part survive, as they do of Ernest Thesiger in the role of Theotocopolus, played in the final cut of the movie by Cedric Hardwicke). In most of the rest of the movie, the technical side and the special effects overpower most of the portrayals, and what warmth there is in the viewing mostly comes from Bliss's score, which was one of the few successful components of the movie in its own time, quickly taking on a life of its own in the concert hall and on record (one of the earliest pieces of film music to succeed in that manner). In the twenty-first century, the movie comes off as a dazzling period piece, with some questions posed in its dialogue that are no less relevant a century later -- and that goes double for the film's final question, of where and how humanity and technology can meet and reconcile.