Directed by production designer William Cameron Menzies, Things to Come is both under- and over-realized in ways that no one involved seems to recognize. Based on a novel by H.G. Wells, it tries to depict the emergence of a new, greater civilization from the hurly-burly of contemporary (1930s) society, through a cataclysmic, thirty-year-long war, to a shiny, science-and-technology based nirvana. Highly stylized, more didactic than dramatic, it is a fascinating record of one vision of the future, but not very compelling as a story.
Part of the problem is that the century-long time span makes it impossible for a single protagonist to motivate action. Events just happen, and they are contrived to make points rather than to create rounded characters or advance the action. (The more the actors try to act naturally, the more aware we are of the strain.) As a weak substitute, one actor (Raymond Massey) plays two related characters (John and Oswald Cabal), who provide a kind of continuity in time. Unfortunately, the elder Cabal has little chance to act on his righteous sentiments, while the younger comes off as a heartless fanatic.
Both Cabals believe in science and rationalism at all costs, as if to demonstrate how scientists and technicians can be as intolerant and totalitarian as religious or political zealots. That message is probably the opposite of what the author and the filmmakers intended (is their surname a joke or a Freudian slip on Wells’s part?) but in any event it is difficult to decide whether the film’s gleaming technological vision is meant as utopia or dystopia. That the masses are easily manipulated into rejecting the rationalists’ techno-fascist paradise exposes political complications of which the filmmakers seem unaware. They certainly do not deal with them as anything more than a childish misunderstanding.
Menzies is most famous for his work as production designer on Gone With The Wind. As a director, he unsurprisingly emphasizes the “visual.” Scenes are conceived less for their dramatic or narrative purpose than for their visual potential. The early sequences, for example, ably create a jumbled, lively, contemporary urban environment which unfortunately has little to do with the central characters. Conversely, the montage sequences transitioning into a world of whirling widgets are impressive but not very involving. They feel more like a modernist/functionalist rhapsody on dizzying progress than a forecast of an inhabitable world.
The skill and seriousness are never in doubt in Things to Come, but while there are plenty of moments in which we can tell how we are supposed to react (such as the suicide of John Cabal’s friend during the war), they never capture the imagination beyond recognition. All involved deserve credit for imaginatively tackling a difficult subject. What is missing is a sense of why we should care about anything going on beyond a vague appreciation of the Futurama that the technicians have dreamed up.