Things To Come
Alternate title: 1936: A Space Odyssey. This film must have looked as revolutionary in its day as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece. There are stunning images that I don’t think any previous science fiction film had even come close to achieving. There are big sets, huge crowds of extras, magnificent glass shots, and a huge amount of very detailed model work. The overall impression, of the last part of the movie, anyway, is of the old Hugo Gernsback magazine covers from the ‘20s and ‘30s, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Air Wonder Stories and the like, come to life. H.G. Wells anticipated carpet bombing from the air and World War Two itself, several years before it came to pass.
Sadly, the visuals are all there are to enjoy here. The rest is didactic, preachy, overblown, and politically way beyond silly. Wells is preaching against war, and who could have a problem with that? But his solution is a soulless technocracy in which the individual means nothing. They live in ant-like cities underground. When an angry artist suggests they tear down the machines and go back to living a primitive life, I’m almost in agreement with him. But he is an idiot stereotype, too.
The movie is really in three parts. The first deals with the lead-up to war and the terrible war itself. It lasts well into the far future of 1967, and all but destroys civilization. The second part deals with the aftermath, the rise of local warlords and something called the Wandering Sickness, whereby people are turned into extras from The Night of the Living Dead and shamble around, hollow-eyed. But civilization has survived somewhere, and boy, has it survived! A man in a spacesuit (Raymond Massey) arrives in a futuristic airplane and tells the warlord (Ralph Richardson, as overwrought in his acting as everyone else here) that his day is over. His people eventually arrive and drop “peace gas,” which knocks everybody out. Then they go on a building binge like the world has never seen, ending up with the huge cities and a “space gun” which is going to fire people on a trip around the moon. I can’t understand why Wells used that old Jules Verne idea; he wasn’t that stupid.
My advice: Sit back and enjoy the visuals, and get a laugh out of the rest of it in its embarrassing ponderousness. The director, William Cameron Menzies, was best known as a production designer (for films like Gone With the Wind), and he outdid himself here. He was obviously influenced by the German expressionists of the time; the movie is dark and filmed from odd angles. There are long, beautifully done montages, and art deco buildings, and huge flying fortresses … too bad there wasn’t a story worth watching.
Can’t leave this one without a word about the costumes. These are the outfits we will all be wearing in the distant future of 2037. First, everybody, male and female, wears skirts and sandals. The only real difference between the boys and the girls is that the girls still wear high heels. But the thing you can’t help noticing is the shoulders. It’s as if they had taken their shirts off the rack and put them on, forgetting to remove the hangers, or, even better, the bar the hangers hung from. They are wide! They look stupid enough from the front, but when somebody turns around and walks away … well, we were doubled up laughing. And Lee and I made the same association at the same time. There was a classic parody of Gone With the Wind, done by Carol Burnett. In the movie, you may recall, Scarlet makes a dress out of the drapes, the only fine material left at Tara. In Carol’s version she does the same thing … but doesn’t take out the curtain rod. That’s how stupid these costumes look.