by Stephen Mullen
Things to Come, released in 1936, a collaboration between H. G. Wells, Alexander Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and a host of illustrious others, is a bit of an odd duck. Gorgeous looking, with stunning imagery (pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and utopian), even more stunning montage sequences, fantastic music, and – well, a star-studded cast, doing what they can – and preachy, static, abstract, with characters designed to Make Points, all of it Deadly in Earnest and political – all at once. It’s a case of too many cooks – creating a wild pot luck of – metaphors…
The best way to look at it is to realize that it is an advertisement. Propaganda. An advertisement for Wells’ book (The Shape of Things to Come), though probably more for Wells’ ideas, his political schemes. The concept of the book is that it is a transcription of a history book from 2105 or 6 that an otherwise very clever man attached to the League of Nations has dreamed of reading over the past few years, writing down as much as he remembers in the morning. He told HG Wells about it, then died, in 1930 – Wells got the notes together and made them into a book, and when the events of 1930-33, described in the dream book, all proved true, Wells decided to publish it (in 1933 or so). The film, then, is an adaptation of this book – given some cinematic touches (it is a book of history, dry, rather impersonal history at that), like characters and drama – but not a lot. The characters are types, put in typical situations, where they make speeches to one another….
But as an advertisement, for the book, and the ideas, the style is perfectly natural. Like ads and propaganda, it may have characters and stories, but they are distinctly abstract – types, there to state the ideas they are advertising, directly and explicitly. “15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance;” “we don’t approve of independent sovereign states.” These people and stories, most of the time, are completely swallowed in the technical displays around them. The technical displays of Things to Come certainly swallow its characters. It is monumental and grand, and dominated by its montage sequences – spectacular montage sequences, brilliantly stitched together series’ of beautifully staged and shot images, tightly edited to the music. They are dazzling: the opening Christmas/War montage – the sequence of the start of the war – the bombing of Everytown – a couple sequences showing the long progress of the war – and an orgy of machine porn (I mean, what else are you going to call it?) showing the building of the new, underground, utopian Everytown. (more…)
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