H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (UK, 1936)

LaurentDurieuxThingsToCome.jpg~originalDirected by: William Cameron Menzies. During my adolescent H.G. Wells phase, after devouring The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, I remember being really interested in the much-hyped prophetic prowess of Mister Wells, which led to me The Shape of Things To Come, part of the complicated provenance for this peculiar film. It was a fairly large hardback from the public library, about 600 pages or so of fairly dense, small text. I made it through about 30 pages I think before giving up. It was over my head. And now, I believe, this film is over my head as well. Either that or it’s just a pretty awful film. Sometimes I like to read the Criterion booklet on a film, at the risk of being influenced by its glowing praise, in order to get some outside perspective. I honestly just didn’t know how to watch this film, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be getting out of it. The sets were inarguably impressive, and some of the visual effects were truly stunning. The main set of Everytown is really incredible: a full-sized, distorted dream landscape of London, with St Paul’s directly overlooking Piccadilly Circus, with a bit of Times Square thrown in as well. The mini-essay I read and the Criterion commentary (by some film historian I didn’t recognize) confirmed my suspicions—it’s the visual stuff that makes this film relevant today, just as much as its confused and confusing production history. Apparently Wells, the screenwriter, took a lot of directing and producing liberties, and the director, Menzies, was a well-respected production designer more than a director, and it shows. It’s all been remarked upon before, but Wells’ script is way more prosaic and pedagogical than plot- or character-driven. Apparently the actors complained about the script and appealed for direction but Menzies was more concerned with the costumes and the sets. The result is definitely a “bad” movie in all respects, but as always, a train wreck is fascinating to watch, especially one with as grand a scale and as fantastical a vision as this one. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this one in general, but to anyone with a kind of academic curiosity about the history of British cinema, of sci-fi films, and of Wells in general, this is definitely a gem. To anyone else, I’d just steer clear.

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