Monday, September 09, 2013
Random Movie Report: Things to Come
As odd as it seems now, for most of the last century of filmmaking, science fiction was a subject the studios didn't give much attention to. When Alexander Korda produced Things to Come (recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Criterion after years of public domain dupes), it was a rare attempt at making an A-level motion picture with the future as its subject, something that had not been attempted since Metropolis ten years ago. As spectacle, Things to Come is just as impressive; however, saddled with the burden of adapting H. G. Wells' didactic future history, it runs into some dramatic shortcomings. But even at its preachiest and most nakedly political, the film is a rich visual symphony, a tour de force for director William Cameron Menzies, and an affirmation of a seemingly naive optimism that is often in too short a supply.
We begin in modern-day London on Christmas and the eve of war. John Cabal (Raymond Massey), a passionate visionary, sees the danger of a war that could end mankind, but most everyone else is convinced it'll be yet another scrape between nations that's quickly resolved. Instead the conflict, against an unnamed enemy in Europe, drags on for decades, slowly bringing down civilization- a process accelerated when biological warfare creates a deadly "wandering sickness" that turns its sufferers into zombielike sleepwalkers who pass their illness onto others. To survive, towns adopt policies of shooting "walkers" on sight and fall under the control of petty military dictators, like The Boss (Ralph Richardson), ruler of what apparently used to be London. A much older Cabal journeys to the city as a representative of Wings Over the World, a secret society of technocrats determined to unify what's left of humanity in an orderly and progressive new civilization. The Boss will have none of that and imprisons Cabal, only for him and his army to be subdued by Wings Over the World and their newest invention, a powerful sleeping gas. Cabal leads his fellow scientists in building a better world, and by the year 2036, people live underground in massive cities with seemingly all their needs taken care of while nature reigns unspoiled overhead. Here, Cabal's descendent Oswald (also Massey) clashes with a reactionary sculptor (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) over plans to conquer space with an orbiter shot out of a giant "Space Gun".
The characters aren't really that important, and the film establishes this pretty quickly. Cabal exists to articulate Wells' vision of the ideal progressive approach to society, making a lot of speeches to this effect; Massey bristled at some of the dialogue he had to read but it never shows onscreen. Another recurring character, Passworthy (Edward Chapman) articulates a humbler attitude, ultimately wrong but not unsympathetic. Individual decisions rarely guide the narrative; war comes whether anyone wants it or not, and by the time Cabal comes to the ruined city, his secret society has already done most of the heavy lifting needed to tame the brigands. The characters are there to show the attitudes of the time as we are swept along a hundred years into the future.
The heavy lifting is instead done by montage, and this is where Menzies excels. From the opening, where images of Christmas cheer are foregrounded against pronouncements of imminent war, we get a sense of moving alongside history. This is quickly followed by the bombing of London, an eerily prescient and harrowing scene of carnage and destruction that had to have unsettled British audiences well aware of the dangers on their doorstep. The war, dragging on through decades, is itself increasingly alien, with shots of futuristic tanks rolling across ruined fields. By contrast the building of the great city of the future is revealed in a downright exhilarating procession of mighty machines boring deep into the Earth, and scientists and engineers putting together new wonders. The look of "Everytown" is Art Deco with a hint of ancient Greece, and its massive pavilion is an indelible image.
For most of its running time, the film's blend of stirring industrial imagery and philosophical dialogue actually works pretty well- it's an episodic picture, but the ideas are gripping and still somewhat provocative in an age when we've come to distrust unfettered scientific advancement. But the film's final act in Everytown is where the preaching gets too heavy and the story suffers for it. The sculptor, Theotocopulos, is too much of a cipher compared to the believably brutish Boss. He doesn't oppose the Space Gun for religious reasons or some kind of superstition, or even a pragmatic objection to the danger involved to the people who will test it- instead he seems opposed to progress in general, and while this often seems to be the case with many people who oppose a particular social or technological advance, they usually try to find some stronger justification than just being tired of things changing. The sculptor is clearly meant to stand in for the many people who do cite religion or political ideology or other concerns in opposition to advancement, but without such a focus he and his rebellion are uninspiring, and ultimately, there is little danger in the final confrontation.
In many ways the film is summed up by its final exchange, horrifically on-the-nose but possessing both ethereal beauty and a genuine passion for its argument. If Wells had lost the knack for sewing together a compelling yarn (and utopias of his such as this were the inspiration for Huxley to critique naive futurism in Brave New World), the filmmakers are still able to find the animating passion behind his lectures, and articulate it through the power of the moving image to realize our wildest and most hopeless imaginings. It's not a patch on Metropolis, and its failure at the box office ensured the big studios would regard science fiction as an insignificant niche for at least another decade, but Things to Come still stands apart, bold and impassioned and beautifully crafted.
Based on "The Shape of Things to Come" by H. G. Wells
Screenplay by H. G. Wells
Directed by William Cameron Menzies