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Things to Come

directed by William Cameron Menzies
1936 / London Films / 96′
written by
H.G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come
original music by Arthur Bliss
cinematography by George Perinal
starring Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Sir Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell
released June 18th, 2012 by
Network / Granada
video: 1080p / 1.33:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: 24-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: English
discs: single layer BD25 / Region B (locked)
and dual layer DVD9 / Region 2 / PAL
Things to Come is available for purchase through Amazon.co.uk.

Penned by H. G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come and directed by feature newcomer William Cameron Menzies, who had already garnered acclaim for his accomplished production design, the lavish 1936 Alexander Korda production of Things to Come never quite amounts to the sum of its parts. A masterwork of design and ideas hamstrung by cold human drama and a penchant for speechifying, Things to Come is perhaps best described as an unforgettable failure – a sprawling epic of speculative fiction and philosophical propaganda that’s no less a classic for all of its faults.

Things to Come‘s ambitious narrative follows the 100 year history of the English metropolis of Everytown, from its destruction in war-time in Christmas of 1936 to it’s glittering future rebirth. The yarn is constructed around two generations of the family Cabal (both played by Raymond Massey, Arsenic and Old Lace), who are rarely so much characters as they are mouthpieces for Wells’ selfsame political-scientific philosophy. In 1936 John Cabal volunteers for the war effort, taking to the air as a fighter pilot. As the global conflict drags on for decade after decade, reducing Everytown to a pre-industrial autocracy, Cabal secretly organizes a new society of scientific fascists – a technologically unchallenged and black-suited army for peace. His Wings Over the World fills the skies of 1970, putting an end to all warmongers with the ‘gas of peace’, setting humanity on a track towards miraculous scientific progress and transforming Everytown into a glittering underground utopia.

In 2036 John Cabal’s great grandson Oswald Cabal, leader of the future governing council, must face a new threat to progress – an uprising among the citizens of Everytown who seek to halt mankind’s first trip around the moon. As hordes of rioters surround the enormous Space Gun that is to launch the rocket, Cabal orders it fired, preserving man’s quest for knowledge and sending the protesters into oblivion. The conclusion sees Cabal standing before an enormous telescopic lens, contemplating whether mankind is doomed to be Earthbound or fated to expand its conquest to the rest of the Universe. “Which shall it be?” he asks, words that are repeated again in the rapturous chorus that closes the film.

Propelled by the shear magnitude of its production alone, Things to Come is dramatically inert for the most part. Sir Ralph Richardson (DragonslayerThe Bed Sitting Room) takes a memorable turn as a mid-century despot of Everytown known only as the “Boss”, while Sir Cedric Hardwicke (George Pal’s War of the Worlds) does much the same as the doomed revolutionary Theotocopulos in the future Everytown of 2036. Unfortunately the “Boss” and Theotocopulos are little more than straw men, existing solely to be put down by righteous Cabal (either of them) and lost to the unstoppable march of progress. For his part Raymond Massey does well by a role that’s less forgiving than any of the rest, and effectively ties the multi-generational drama together even though he’s given little to do but strike a pose (often in one of two ridiculous costumes) and espouse interminable tracts of Wells’ philosophy.

While Wells himself can be blamed for the deficiencies in Things to Come‘s drama, having penned the script himself (with updates by Korda associate Lajos Biro, The Thief of Bagdad), it was the power-struggle between producer Korda and Wells, who had been granted unprecedented access to and influence over the production, that would lead to the film’s steady decline. Wells proved difficult and inflexible with regards to the production, while Korda often reacted to what he disliked about the picture (like Wells’ interminable exposition) by simply removing it. By the time the film first reached American shores Korda and its distributors had already excised half an hour of its original 130 minutes, compromising its continuity and whatever narrative flow there had been in favor of the spectacle alone. Further release variations would be even shorter, with some running barely more than an hour.

Director William Cameron Menzies, along with photographer Georges Perinal, designer Vincent Korda and effects director Ned Man, assured that Things to Come would at least have a cohesive visual style, from the opening moments in pre-war Everytown to the closing starscape, and no matter how cold and turgid its dramatics may be the technical achievements of the thing are difficult to overstate. The futuristic rebuilding of Everytown, in which massive excavators hollow out a cavernous expanse that swiftly develops into a vast antiseptic city of porcelain and glass (complete with moving sidewalks and glass-tube elevators) with the booming themes of Arthur Bliss taking precedence over any sort of sound effects, is perhaps the mother of all science fiction montages. Even the substantively embarrassing Space Gun, the film’s one absolute piece of scientific bunk (it even has a sight!), is of impressive construction and imposing scale.

But the spectacle is hardly limited to the future of 2036. The air raid sequence that begins the picture is one of most successful undertakings of its kind, with swift and lyrical cross-cutting between a panicked population and defensive military operations culminating in a terrifying tour-de-force of urban destruction and human misfortune. Mann’s complex miniature and composite effects are certainly more transparent a full seventy five years after the fact, but the brilliantly realized imagery (explosive anti-aircraft barrages, buildings reduced to rubble, survivors struggling among the wreckage, and the body of a child half-buried in debris) has lost none of its visceral potency. The montages that follow, detailing a horrific futility of a decades-long war between nations through the power of image alone, are pure Menzies, a mix of the literal and the symbolic that drives the story more effectively than any of Wells’ truncated drama. The plague-ravaged and despotic future of 1970, complete with a massive exterior set of bombed-out Everytown, invites one of science fiction’s great visuals – a fleet of improbably gigantic aircraft flown by the peace-dealing soldiers of Wings Over the World, emerging from the clouds to put an end to the warmongers once and for all. That’s the image that so captivated a much-younger me, viewing Things to Come on television for the first time in one of its many confounding broadcast versions, and though the ideas behind it don’t settle so easily with me anymore the scene has lost none of its grandeur.

While its difficult for me to believe that the potential with Things to Come was not greater than what eventually came to pass, the final product still ranks as the unparalleled science fiction achievement of its generation. The ravages of time, battles with overzealous editors and a dubious public domain status may have conspired to eradicate much of this top-tier production’s original luster, but it’s still a hell of a thing, brimming with big ideas and some of the most classic of classic sci-fi conceptions. Regardless of whatever problems it may have Things to Come is still must-see genre material, and gets an easy recommendation from me.

The atrocious Legend Films Blu-ray of last year (which crammed colorized and black and white versions of both Things to Come and SHE onto one over-stuffed BD50) can now soundly be laid to rest, having been properly trounced by Network / Granada’s Blu-ray update of their already fine PAL DVD set from 2007. That DVD edition was already the superior of Legend’s presentation, besting it in both image quality and substance at every turn, but this new Blu-ray certainly seals the deal.

Not only is Network / Granada’s new presentation sourced from superior elements – a full restoration of the longest extant version of the film, and the same used for their earlier DVD – but it improves markedly on the technical front as well, more than doubling the bitrate of the Legend Films. It’s not a perfect representation, of course. The 75-plus year old film naturally shows some age in the form of dirt, specks, and scratches as well as in some minor image instability. There’s also an odd two-frame glitch during the bombing of Everytown, though in motion it flits by too quickly to really be noticed (the glitch is present in the 2007 DVD as well, and thus must be present in the HD source files).

Otherwise I’m at a loss to complain about much of anything here. Detail, already very strong in the earlier DVD, resolves even better in its native HD, and the contrast (a major shortcoming of the Legend Blu-ray) is tremendous. Georges Perinal’s ace photography is crisper and more spectacular than ever, especially during the bombing of Everytown and feudal post-war sequences, and the texture of the film, itching to break through in the SD, clarifies into a lovely grain. Technical specifications are modest, and even so mark a huge advancement over the Legend Films release. The video receives a middling Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps, but holds together nicely all the same. Posterization is never an issue, and the occasional artifacting is of such minor stuff as to go unnoticed in playback. I’m very pleased – Things to Come has never looked better on home video than it does here, and I doubt much could be done to demonstrably improve upon it.

Looks aren’t everything, though, and if there’s a real weakness in this presentation of Things to Come it’s the audio. To be clear, this is a film that has never sounded good by modern standards, but Network / Granada have caused as many problems as they’ve corrected in their efforts to restore it. The problem here is the over-zealous filtering that was done to clear the track of pops, cracks, and especially hiss. While much of this has been remedied, and to some good effect, the processing has also created an anomaly that reminds of the phasing problems that plague some sub-standard surround mixes. The effect was exaggerated in the PAL DVD of the film, where the up-pitching did it no favors, but it’s still perfectly noticeable in this film-speed rendering. It’s a distracting issue, particularly with regards to Arthur Bliss’ score (which sounds weaker and more tinny than usual here – the original recording was rough enough to start with), but, as with the earlier DVD, I found it livable here. I know there are others out there more sensitive to the problem, and those who found the DVD’s audio overly distressing should proceed with caution here. For those concerned with the technical side, the monophonic recording is presented in lossless 24-bit LPCM and yes, optional English subtitles (yellow) are provided.

With the exception of two image galleries, which are now presented in HD on the first disc, the rest of the supplements are duplicated from the earlier 2-disc DVD set in SD PAL. The Blu-ray disc of the film features the same audio commentary with Things to Come historian Nick Cooper, the two aforementioned image galleries, as well as a US re-release trailer for the film and a .pdf format copy of the post-production script, accessible with a BD-ROM drive.

Disc 2 of the Blu-ray edition is a PAL-format dual layer DVD9, and all of the other material from the earlier DVD edition appears to have been included. You get On Reflection: Brian Aldiss on H.G. Wells, a vintage 25 minute documentary from 1971, a lengthy Russell Harty interview with Things to Come star Sir Ralph Richardson from 1975, as well as The Wandering Sickness, a 78rpm recording from London Films in 1935. Also included is a Things to Come virtual extended edition, which uses text and images to relate various material, both cut and unfilmed, to produced what Network / Granada advertise as a “tantalizing ‘what-if'”. This is one of the more fascinating extras ever devised for a DVD release, and while the constant interruption of text and stills keep it from being traditionally entertaining, the intrigue factor is sky high. The clear-case packaging replicates the exceptional work done for the special edition DVD with some dimensional alteration (love that cover!), and includes a new printing of that edition’s extensive (and I mean extensive) booklet of liner notes from Nick Cooper. Things to Come is region-B locked (bonus DVD is Region 2), and will require multi-regional hardware to play domestically.

I’ve been looking forward to an inevitable hi-def upgrade of Network / Granada’s swell SD special edition for several years now, and though the final product is imperfect (particularly the audio) it more than meets my expectations. Those who have been waiting for a quality HD presentation of Things to Come finally have it, and I can’t help but recommend.

Comparison grabs
Network / Granada DVD (upscaled to 1080) | Legend Films Blu-ray | Network Granada Blu-ray

More Network / Granada Blu-ray Screenshots

All new screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. The comparison shots were sourced from our earlier review of the Legend Films Blu-ray.

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