Things to Come

(Dir. William Cameron Menzies, UK, 1936)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

This hugely impressive, but flawed, creation is the 'Metropolis' of British science fiction film. Split into three sections, Things to Come takes a sweeping look one hundred years into the future. In 1936, the world is on the brink of war; by 1970, a new dark-age has descended; at the film's close in 2036, a new utopia is being tested by a restless humanity. This tale of paradise lost, found and lost again might serve as an allegory for the production itself, which set the modernist artistic vision of director, William Menzies, against the dated paternalistic fervour of writer, H.G. Wells.

By the time Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, eight of his novels (not all science fiction) had been turned into films; a further two films were to be released that year, including James Whale's classic, The Invisible Man. Wells' impressive record and world reputation subsequently gave him effective control over Things to Come, initially titled Whither Mankind? In Things to Come, Wells attempts a culmination of his considerable fiction and non-fiction output, combining favourite themes of scientific humanism and social evolution in his final speculative vision of the future. However, the result is a haughty morality tale, in which a confusing liberal fascism appears to rub shoulders with communist eugenics to produce a future where people say far too much, far too grandly. In Wells' 2036 utopia the leaders equate progress with science, while artists are scorned for their 'regressive' yearnings for a simpler world.

Wells' stance is ironic given the impressive array of visionary artistic talent gathered by Alexander Korda for the production. Whilst director Menzies is clearly uneasy working with actors, his competence as a production designer is clear. The film opens with a sequence showing 'Everytown' on the brink of war. Menzies apes Eisensteinian montage, as he juxtaposes images of individual fear with mass destruction - a reflection of Wells' own attempt to present a wider humanity through individual stories. Menzies combines further seductive effects-laden montage sequences with Arthur Bliss' stirring score to marry Wells' distinct narrative sections together in a seamless whole. Everytown is destroyed and reappears in the ruins of the brilliantly executed sets which form the arena for Ralph Richardson's deliciously bombastic post-apocalypse Boss. It is worth noting that the storming of the besieged coal pit to get at the valuable oil is an interesting precursor to Mad Max 2 (1981).

Once into the third section of Things to Come, the influence of László Maholy-Nagy's rejected Bauhaus designs is apparent in Vincent Korda's breathtaking cityscapes and the modernist machines, filmed by Hollywood special effects import Ned Mann. The only glaring misfire in an otherwise astounding 1930s vision of the future is shared with Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926): it is the repeated suggestion, that aircraft the 21st Century would continue to use propellers. Despite this, Menzies perfectionism helped to push the film's budget to £300,000 - a vast sum then, and once which was not recouped at the box office.

Things to Come remains, however, one of the greatest visual achievements in science fiction cinema.

UK; London Film Productions; 100 minutes; UK cert. PG; B&W
Producer: Alexander Korda; Writers: H.G. Wells (with Lajos Biró); Cinematography: Georges Périnal; Editors: Charles Chrichton & Francis D. Lyon; Art Direction: Vincent Korda; Special Effects: Ned Mann; Music.: Arthur Bliss.
Cast. John/Oswald Cabal: Raymond Massey; Pippa/Raymond Passworthy: The Boss: Ralph Richardson; Roxana/Rowena: Margaretta Scott; Theotocopulos: Cedric Hardwicke.

Things to Come by Chritopher Frayling, 1995, London: BFI (Classics).

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