Friday, September 20, 2013

Things to Come - OK, MAYBE I picked this one for a bit of foreshadowing.

Buckle your seatbelts, kids.
Thanks to a bit of pregaming next week, The Third Row is kicking into festive mode for October after this entry.and yes, the article isn't just announcing that. It seemed appropriate to kick off not one but two events (I'll announce the other when we get there) with this writeup on the H.G. Wells classic.

This is one of those films I went in to with a bit of a high bar attached to it - the story is, Wells set this film in motion after seeing Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis...and not liking it at all. This film, he is said to have told the players involved, was to do the opposite of what that movie did.

So I went into this realizing this was essentially a cinematic equivalent of  throwing down the gauntlet.

I don't think it necessarily surpasses the classic that Wells sought to throw down against. At the same time, however, it actually excels on several other levels.

Loosely based on Wells's own novel "The Shape of Things to Come," the movie plays out roughly with what the title promises - offering a speculative look at the next 100 years of human history from the end of World War I onward. The arc sees mankind plummet into war, desolation, and finally be reborn into a scientific utopia. Naturally, given the film's roughly 100 minute run time, this is told in broad strokes. Yet it's still an impressive feat to see pulled off in a film all the same.

Over the course of this, Wells chooses to focus on a select few characters and their next of kin over the generations - the Cabals (played in both iterations by Raymond Massey) and the Passworthys (here played by Edward Chapman.) It's a creative narrative trick, and one that the actors make a good go of. Though their roles are somewhat kept the same, they do try to make some differences in how they play each of their roles. The rest of the cast, likewise, turns in solid performances. The other standout in this regard is during the arc of post-war ruin, where what remains of the movie's focal location of Everytown (OK, I'll concede subtlety isn't really this movie's strong suit) is lorded over by a man simply known as The Boss, played by a
young Ralph Richardson. For a role that boils down to a thug and a bully, Richardson does what he can with the part, and manages to make him one of the more memorable characters in this in spite of his shortcoming. Admittedly, some of the scenes can feel a bit more suited for the stage than film, but given when this film was made, it's something you learn to take in stride as part of the medium's growing pains.

"...welp, I ain't cleaning THIS one up!"

That's actually both the strength and weakness of the film - because it's being told in such broad strokes and over such a long period of time, the story itself feels somewhat lacking beyond seeing what happens in the broader history. There are some interesting plot points in individual sequences, but the overall narrative feels somewhat disjointed between eras.

Which, again, is a shame, because on an era to era basis, this movie has some strong bits of directing to it. One of the standouts in this regard being in the film's opening, which heralds the outbreak of a second World War. We learn this through a series of scene along a street in Everytown one Christmas eve, the holiday fervor, all set to Christmas carols, intercut with news articles announcing the situation worsening globally and the occasional 'the end is near.' The contrast is quite well put together and arguably one of the strongest scenes in the film. Willam Cameron Menzies has a sharp eye for individual scenes, and I can't even rightly fault him for the problems with the overall narrative, as those are a mix of consequence of the concept and Wells's script.

"...and I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, 'Merry Christmas to all, and to all duck and cover!'"

Alongside the disjointed element of the script, the one other problem I'd say this script has going for it is as a result of its message. Which is strange to say since the message itself isn't a bad one - the film advocates an increased emphasis on science with the idea that it could lead to a utopian future. This mostly is handled well, if a little bluntly, until the last act set in 2035. with the Earth a technological paradise, mankind is on the verge of flight to the moon. This achievement, however, is being challenged by a group of luddites led by a sculptor (Cedric Hardwicke.) Again, in and of itself not a bad idea, however part of the dialogue does inadvertently cast the conflict in an 'arts vs sciences' light. I suspect this wasn't the intent of the film per se, but it does become an inadvertent message of the last act.

Of course, to Wells's credit, where he slips on the narrative, he makes up for it in sheer ideas. One of the reasons this film has endured, and one of the most fascinating things it has going for it, is the fact that its title actually proved more accurate than people would expect. While naturally not an exact match, many of the technical innovations Wells envisions in this film did in fact come to pass, some with a strange amount of accuracy. Things like the fact he predicts the outbreak of World War II fairly close to the mark - though thankfully he was a bit off the mark in the regard of the use of poison gas in the war. Likewise, many of the technologies he envisions, such as traveling to the moon, flat-screen televisions, and other such innovations, albeit sometimes on a different timeline than they actually came to be.

Still, I imagine his corpse has one VERY smug, if well earned grin...what's left of it, anyway.

In all, Things to Come is a pretty striking entry in  early science fiction cinema. As an overall narrative, its ambition is both a strength and a weakness, presenting an intriguing concept, albeit at the cost of a more personal element in its cast and plotting. As a film of its time, it makes a MAJOR impact for the number of things it actually does manage to predict right.

What it lacks in Lang's human element, it arguably surpasses him in in terms of scientific innovations. In a weird way, I can't rightly say one surpasses the other, but rather the two films, despite being born out of a rivalry, compliment each other in a way.

Really, if you have any interest in science fiction cinema, especially in its early years, this is one I can't recommend enough. It's certainly a stand out among the genre's early trailblazers, and even with its story shortcomings, has enough going in its favor to make it well worth the time to see.

Once again, as I am wont to do when it comes to movies in the public domain, I'm gonna use this opportunity to plug for the Criterion release for this. Not because I'm paid by them, not just because I like their general line, but because this is one of those films that gets subject to a lot of different releases of varying video quality and length. By their very nature as a group, Criterion has assembled the closest to a complete cut of the film (with some extra scenes made for it after included as a bonus) with a wonderfully cleaned up master. Plus, their extra features further help outline its significance to film and science fiction cinema in particular.

All in all, a trip worth taking...

With that, brace yourselves.  Next Friday, the shenanigans begin.

There may still be other entries alongside those as time permits/allows, but this will be a major two projects lined up.

Till then...

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