Utopia According to Wells
The Criterion Collection 660
H. G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote his most important science-fiction novels early in his career. The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau were from that period -- the fiction that led to Wells being called "the father of science fiction." Jules Verne had previously been accorded the same honor. But Wells wrote much more than science fiction; he authored contemporary novels, histories, essays, and social commentary. And in 1936 he authored the screenplay for Things to Come, based in large part on his book, The Shape of Things to Come.
The movie posters proclaim this movie as "H. G. Wells' Things to Come," the possessive very important in the full title because by all reports Wells was on the set daily and expected to have the last say even on minute changes or additions to the script and production design. He even got an actor fired after his part was already filmed because he was unhappy with the result. He had this control even though such proven artists as Alexander Korda (producer), William Cameron Menzies (director), Vincent Korda (set designer), and Sir Arthur Bliss (composer) were on board and could probably have done a brilliant job without the author's input.
At the time of filming, Wells was identified with socialism and his view of a world order, one run by scientists, in which all citizens were of common worth. In Things to Come, Wells begins his story on Christmas Eve in the present (1936), taking it well into the middle of the 21st century. The Earth would be virtually destroyed (Wells maintained that present systems could not be repaired; they must be annihilated) before being rebuilt as a world government. His script might at first seem like science fiction, but it is actually utopian fiction masquerading as science fiction.
There are a few prominent characters in the movie, but they are either symbolic amalgams or stereotypes. Raymond Massey appears throughout in different roles, which gives the movie a bit of consistency. It's the set design that sticks in one's memory more than the acting: the transparent underground glass city, the machines that built it, the space cannon that will take man to ever-new horizons. Wells would roll in his grave at the thought, as he had specifically forbade it, but his movie reminds one of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
As is to be expected, Criterion has done a splendid job at creating a Blu-ray edition of the classic film. The black-and-white images are better than any I've seen of this movie. There's still a little flicker here and there, but mostly the images are sharp and clean with good contrast. The sound has been cleaned up as well as can be expected from an optical soundtrack.
The extras are a mixed bag. The commentary by film historian David Kalat is interesting, but it is seldom screen specific. You'll be watching one thing and Kalat will be on a more sweeping discourse about something else. His thoughts are related to Wells and they convey a lot of information, but I prefer screen-specific commentaries that expand the understanding of what I am seeing on screen at a particular moment.
There are other featurettes about different aspects of the production. One of the most interesting is on Sir Arthur Bliss's music. The score was, and still is, tremendously popular. As a performer, Bliss was conducting an orchestral suite from the music before the film even opened. Wells thought so much of the music that he wanted the movie made to it, rather than having it added during post-production, as is the norm. Wells lost that battle. (If you hunt, you can find a stereo recording Bliss made of his suite with the London Symphony in the mid '50s. First released on RCA, it is now available on CD in the Australian Decca Eloquence series.)
H. G. Wells' Things to Come is a fascinating look at a world of the future as visualized by one of Britain's best-known social and science-fiction authors. Criterion has done a great job bringing it to Blu-ray. Be warned, though, that this impressive movie is still a bit cold and distant. I admire it more than love it. So a rental might be in order for deciding where you stand before making a purchase.
Be sure to watch for: Chapter 4 starts off with a montage of war efforts, the soldiers placed in front of giant numerals denoting the year. At the end we see a soldier strung up on barbed wire so that he seems part of the twisted metal. This dissolves to the same scene without the soldier's body -- only fragments of cloth remain. It's a grisly and harsh scene that's difficult to forget.
. . . Rad Bennett