Things to Come 1936 ★★★★

Watched Oct 262020

joshmatthews’s review published on Letterboxd:

HG Wells oversaw this mammoth production that must be seen just for its visuals and editing. Why have I never heard of this movie, which shows up on NONE of the greatest science-fiction movies ever lists, not even the ones that are 150-200 films long?

The star of the movie is Social Evolution itself, not any person or scenario. That’s in contrast to the romantic heroes featured in this period, and in the existential heroes/anti-heroes that came later. Wells wrote a novel/treatise called “The Shape of Things to Come,’ adapting it for this 1936 movie, prophesying the coming of World War 2, its post-apocalyptic aftermath, the coming battles about who owns technology and who has the power to develop it, and (hopefully in his view) some far-distant utopia. Of course the entire movie argues against the possibilities of utopia, as does “The Time Machine.” Wells was a doomsday prophet with wild hopes and dreams.

This movie owes a lot to German Expressionism and probably Eisenstein, and I would love to know if Orson Welles saw it, which would make a lot of sense. It races through the decades, beginning in 1940 (four years from the movie’s release), mixing Christmas and the news of a new, second World War. Then it jumps to the 1950s, 60s, and so on to 2036. The sets are mostly apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, with designs that should continue to prove influential enough.

The deep flaw is the attempt at characterization and too much dialogue — about 20 minutes worth of talk talk talk. Had the movie gone all the way, as the Wells’ disciple Olaf Stapledon did in his book “Star-Maker”, the movie might’ve been more simply a wonder-sweep across eons of time. It would’ve been mixed genre — a fictional speculation, a pseudo-documentary, maybe something a bit more like “La Jetee.” 

But you have to watch it as if it is 1) wonder-sweep and 2) featuring “Social Evolution” as the main character. Having read plenty of Wells and Stapledon, I knew what was up here. And yet all of those people rating this movie too lowly have missed the point: this is the opposite of a movie featuring glorified individuals, the main features of about 99.99% of films ever made. We are supposed to compare the cultures, ideas, and premises of the three different eras depicted in the movie. As with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the real star is the development of tech and its effects on the little creatures it uses called homo sapiens.

Whereas Lang’s “Metropolis” is visionary melodrama, this is visionary imagism that preps us for Kubrick’s 2001, which is part of the same filmic family-tree as “Things to Come.” I mean, you are going to see a big screen-TV circa 1936, before they even had TVs.

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