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In the 1930s HG Wells wrote a few film scripts for British filmmaker Alexander Korda. Things to Come (1936) stands as one of very few large-scale science fiction films made between the silent era and the genre's re-emergence in the 1950s. As one of the only proper sci fi films that wasn't a Flash Gordon serial, it has a certain status among genre fans. Unfortunately, the reality of watching the film is nowhere near as exciting as the idea of it.
The film begins in the present day (i.e. 1936) in 'Everytown' (obviously meant to be London, as it has a cathedral very like St Paul's). Everyone's getting ready for Christmas, but the threat of war is looming. War finally arrives on Christmas day, with aerial bombing - the enemy is obviously meant to be Germany, although the film is never clear about who is who. Over the next 30 years the war continues and almost destroys civilisation. After the war the ravaged Everytown falls under the sway of a brutal warlord called The Boss. But a secret brotherhood of peace-loving technocrats plans to put an end to him and his warlike ways. We then get a glimpse of a century into the future (i.e. 2038) at the glorious scientific utopia that Everytown has become.
It would be lovely to say that the British had produced a fabulous large-scale science fiction film in the style of Metropolis back in 1936. Unfortunately, Things to Come is tedious and didactic. It's like being lectured for an hour and a half. HG Wells wrote a series of undisputed classic science fiction novels in the 1890s, in which he made his points - about socialism and colonialism and vivisection and what have you - in an engaging way without ever ranting at the readers about how things should be. I guess as he got older he lost the ability to write inspiring fiction and just started laying down the law left right and centre. (I've not actually read the novel of Things to Come, and have no intention of doing so).
The opening 20 minutes of the film are genuinely impressive, enough to make you feel sorry for how bad the rest of it is. Everytown is fairly well realised, and the Christmas sequences are better than you might expect. There's a sense of everyone trying desperately to ignore the war, which keeps intruding into the frame in the form of headlines glimpsed behind characters. There's something mournful and even martial about the Christmas carols that accompany this sequence. Even better is the first air raid. Famously, the one thing this film did get right was that people would hide in Underground stations to avoid the bombs. The scenes of panic and destruction are well done, even if the special effects are a bit obvious.
Unfortunately, even in these early war scenes, the film has already started to wear out its goodwill. Our hero is a chap called John Cabal, played by Raymond Massey. He's prone to staring off into the distance and delivering little lectures about how we must stop war and devote ourselves to scientific progress. He is the last person you'd want to have anywhere near you at Christmas, although to be fair most of his friends and his wife behave in very similar ways. There is literally no one in this film who is written as an actual, believable character. They are all there purely to deliver the film's clunkingly obvious message - that science is great and war is bad.
Of course, it's not like Metropolis has a nuanced storyline either. But it's filmed in a way that makes it great despite the silliness of the plot. Things to Come is sadly boring, and feels a lot longer than 97 minutes (a lot of additional footage is lost. The thought of an even longer version of this film makes me want to hurt myself). The far future scenes are completely sterile, a far cry from the teeming madness of Metropolis. People sit around in their dull, dull environments having debates about philosophy and progress. An attempt to bring in some human interest in these future scenes, as the leader's daughter decides to travel on the first lunar expedition, falls hopelessly flat. This supposed utopia - with everyone living underground, enjoying artificially generated sunlight - sounds absolutely horrible. For some reason it's the kind of scientific paradise where they've forgotten how to make trousers, a strangely 1930s view of the future.
The film's lengthy middle section has Everytown slip back into a kind of medieval feudal system run by a brutal warlord. This is also dull and preachy, but is livened up considerably by Ralph Richardson as the thuggish Boss. He's the only person in the film who seems to want the audience to be entertained, and he manages to find ways to make the character fun. You end up rooting for him in spite of the film's intentions. Otherwise it's lousy, and the 'wandering sickness', an attempt at adding a bit of horror through germ warfare, isn't nearly prominent enough to matter.
The soundtrack throughout, by Arthur Bliss, is almost ridiculously bombastic, but that's probably appropriate in a film that hammers home its point so unsubtly. I can't really find any reason to recommend this film - the future scenes look kind of camp, but you'd be better off watching an old Flash Gordon serial if retro-futurism is your thing. And the story is so tedious it will make you gnash your teeth in frustration.
The film does look pretty good on Blu-ray. There's a lot of fine detail visible, and the image has a kind of depth or texture to it that looks appealing. Blacks and whites are very black or white. There's a lot of grain visible, and there are some scratches to the picture, which are noticeable, but this has been pieced together from various different sources so presumably exists in different states of repair. There's a commentary from an expert on the film (who also wrote the informative booklet you get with it). This is interesting in some ways, but the film doesn't really feel like it's worth knowing all that much about.
The DVD also has good image quality. For once, the extras are mostly confined to the DVD, so it feels like the replication of formats has some point to it. The version of the film presented on the DVD has text intercut into it to tell us where scenes were removed or lost, even giving us the written dialogue that tell us what characters were meant to say. While this is an impressive feat of recreation, it strikes me as a lot of trouble to go to for this particular film.
There is also a lengthy (45-minute!) episode of Russell Harty from the late 1970s in which he interviews Ralph Richardson. It's a bit of a chore, with Richardson proving a rather dull eccentric. There's also an old BBC documentary in which Brian Aldiss talks (straight to camera) about HG Wells. This is a bit more interesting, but only a bit. Finally there's a recording of someone reading out a description of the wandering sickness from the film script.
Normally I like old films, especially old fantasy films. This one just refuses to endear itself to me - and I've seen it twice now, so have given it every chance. It's an impressive release in terms of picture quality and the work that's gone into some of the extras, but that's not a reason to want to own this.