The Criterion Collection has issued a restoration of this landmark film on Blu-ray, with a commentary track by film historian David Kalat that is absolutely essential. Things to Come is a fascinating film, but quite a difficult one. As Kalat explains, though directed by Academy Award-winner William Cameron Menzies and produced by successful British filmmaker Alexander Korda, H.G. Wells was the primary artistic force behind the film. This was his far-reaching vision of the future, built on Wells’ own socialist views. Characters—and the human emotion that generally accompany them—are strictly secondary to what is essentially a broad, sometimes heavy-handed and preachy view of the way things ought to be.
As a film history lesson, Criterion’s edition is indispensable. The primary weakness of Things to Come is that, as narrative, there is very little attempt to emotionally involve the viewer. As we move past the beginning of the war, so many decades are covered that obviously we aren’t permitted to get to know the characters on anything approaching a level of depth. The war leads to a period of utter desolation, with an emerging anti-technology stance among some of the poverty-stricken citizens of Everytown, sick from a new plague (the “wandering sickness”). Once we get into the ‘70s, we’re reintroduced to John Cabal (Raymond Massey), a pilot who we first met when the war broke out 30 years before. He conveys news of a modern Iraqi-based civilization called “Wings of the World” that has made great strides in pointing society toward a prosperous future.
Late in the film, as we reach the distant future, there’s some now-silly business involving a “space gun” that will shoot passengers into orbit. But the real lasting triumphs of Things to Come are the extraordinary production design and visual effects. As Kalat discusses in the commentary, they threw in everything available in terms of special effects. The initial war montage achieves quite a bit of excitement with its montage of heavy artillery and explosions. Later we see futuristic tanks and aircraft, but it’s all merely a prelude to the all-out array of jaw-dropping future world sets in the final act. As an extravagant visual experience, however technically primitive this stuff is nearly eight decades later, it remains quite impressive as one of early cinema’s most elaborate sci-fi visions.
Criterion’s presentation is probably as good as we can hope for, considering the advanced age of Things to Come. So much optical effects work was done for the film it’s hardly surprising that there are scratches, occasional instabilities, and other anomalies throughout (all inherent in the source materials, not a deficiency of Criterion’s restoration work). The booklet informs us the transfer was made from a 35mm fine-grain composite print, the same source for the LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. The audio shows its age as well, sounding brittle and harsh at times (particularly as the score swells at times). It’s always easily intelligible however. All in all, for a 77-year-old film this is an easily acceptable presentation once you adjust to its limitations.
In addition to the exemplary audio commentary, a few other worthy features have been included. The best are a pair of featurettes, “Christopher Frayling on the Design” and “Bruce Eder on the Score.” The former is a 23-minute interview focused on the aforementioned production design. The latter is a 17-minute examination of the Arthur Bliss score (commissioned by Wells himself). Rounding things out are a few minutes of unused effects footage, a bizarre experimental short film by Jan Tichy that utilizes some of that same leftover footage, and a few minutes of audio from a reading of H.G. Wells’ writings. Author Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay, included in the booklet, is worth reading for further context.
Casual viewers may be a little put off by the cerebral, cold tone of Things to Come. Armchair film historians, especially anyone with a specific interest in science fiction, will eat this edition up.