Science fiction was in its infancy in 1936, when Hollywood brought to the screen, arguably, the first great SF epic, with a script adapted by H.G. Wells from his book. The film’s design influenced visions of the future for years to come. Three years after its release, the young Forrest J. Ackerman would wear a Things to Come costumed, modified with Flash Gordon touches, to the first World SF Con, and become the first SF cosplayer.

Clearly, the film is a landmark.

From the perspective of the actual twenty-first century, is it watchable?

Title: Things to Come

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Written by H.G. Wells from his novel.

Raymond Massey as John Cabal / Oswald Cabal
Edward Chapman as Pippa Passworthy / Raymond Passworthy
Ralph Richardson as The Boss
Margaretta Scott as Roxana / Rowena
Cedric Hardwicke as Theotocopulos
Maurice Braddell as Dr. Harding
Sophie Stewart as Mrs. Cabal
Derrick De Marney as Richard Gordon
Ann Todd as Mary Gordon
Pearl Argyle as Catherine Cabal
Kenneth Villiers as Maurice Passworthy
Ivan Brandt as Morden Mitani
Anne McLaren as The Child

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Available from Amazon.

Premise:

The film takes us from Depression-era “Everytown” through the Second World War (which begins, in this prediction, in 1940, and drags on for decades), to feudal, post-apocalyptic 1970, to 2036, when technology rules, and the human race shoots for the moon.

High Points:

Obviously the film is dated, corny, and ponderous. However, period SF otherwise consisted of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, low-budget shoot-em-ups in space. Things to Come actually gives us the SF of ideas on the big screen, and it matches those ideas with visions that remained in the public consciousness for decades. The visuals would not be out of place on the cover of a contemporaneous Hugo Gernsback publication, but they have their own design and feel.

Once you get past the ridiculous costumes of the final segment, you may be impressed to note that the film’s twenty-first century features cell phones and flat, widescreen television.

Low Points:

The montage used to show the rebuilding of the world and the wonderful (if rather sterile) global society of the future drags. It would have been more impressive in 1936, when these would have been startling and original images for cinema.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 It’s an adaptation, but it looks like nothing film had done beforehand.

Effects: 5/6 How does one adequately assess special effects from 1936? Some of the shots, especially of the war, remain impressive and convincing, and the sets make great use of recycled parts. The combination of model work, mirror shots, and optical composites was an impressive achievement for the era; only King Kong had combined so many effects before. However, it will look, to the contemporary eye, like a combination of model work, mirror shots, and optical composites.

Story: 4/6. A cinematic Frankenstein’s Monster, composed of disparate sections, Things to Come takes us through war to a conflict between a tin-pot dictator and a monolithic technosociety. The dictator resembles more than a little Benito Mussolini, and is clearly the villain. The latter plays like a combination of the United States and the Soviet Union and, while the film clearly regards the technocrats as heroes, I found myself rooting for them less than the filmmakers would have liked.

The film ends in 2036, with a rebellion by Luddite nincompoops, a voyage to the moon, and a speech about the human future.

I should clarify here: the film portrays the rebels as a blind mob on the wrong side of history. The fears created by technology, however, even among those who rely upon it, are very real, and Wells demonstrates prescience here.

Acting: 4/6 Even those who enjoy the stylized acting of Hollywood’s Golden Age will be taken aback by the blend of over-the-top and stilted that characterizes too many of the performances here. At its best this is stage-acting, filmed close up. The final speech, intended as inspirational, plays as a little deranged.

The actors play types, not characters. This is intended, but it may not work for all viewers.

Production: 5/6 The sets and model work are, for the time, stunning. The twenty-first century costuming looks both cheaply-made and laughworthy.

Emotional Response: 4/6 This will vary throughout the sections, but there’s no question the film should be viewed by anyone interested in the history of SF.

Overall: 4/6. It’s not perfect, but it is influential, a film of ideas and a work of Art Deco.

In total, receives 30/42.