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DVD Watch: 'Things to Come'

H.G. Wells' sci-fi epic comes to Criterion
Monica Riese, 9:59am, Tue. Jun. 18, 2013

I'm the first to admit I'm not the biggest fan of science fiction; to me, there's enough to learn about the technologies of today without speculating wildly about those of tomorrow.

But even I recognize the importance of H.G. Wells' Things to Come, which hits the Criterion Collection on DVD ($29.95) and Blu-ray ($39.95) today. Perhaps that's because its tomorrows are already, largely, yesterday to modern viewers.

The 1936 film spans a century of war, disease, politics, and utopian dreams – from Christmas 1940 in the British city of Everytown, with war imminent, to human space travel in 2036, with all the controversy that entails. It fast-forwards through the decades, giving an overview of some of the controversies and achievements of each age.

Some of the film's predictions are way off – we beat him to the moon by more than half a century – but while it's easy enough to chuckle at some of what passed for futuristic technology in the 1930s, enough of the messages resonate 70 years later that it's worth taking note. Indeed, Wells' view of the future is just realistic enough to put our sense of accomplishment in perspective.

In the essay that accompanies the Criterion edition, Geoffrey O'Brien acknowledges that "few have expressed unqualified enthusiasm for the work, not even those responsible for it." Indeed, Wells lost a good deal of creative control between his book (The Shape of Things to Come) and Alexander Korda's adaptation, and it's difficult for viewers to follow the "peculiar sort of illustrated lecture" that comes from a screenplay comprising predominantly philosophical monologues. "It purports to be the transcription of an actual historical work of the early twenty-second century, transmitted through a series of mysterious dreams." Not the least accessible thing in the world, but certainly not a breeze either.

Still, it's an important work. Its ambitious visual design was unparalleled at the time (and, indeed, it had "a scope that no filmmaker until Kubrick would again attempt"), and many of its messages about war, religion, and politics are still valid to this day, so its recognition as part of the Criterion Collection is completely deserved. The high-definition transfer from a 35mm print is crisp and clean, with touchups done by hand to remove dirt and scratches. The soundtrack – a booming score by Arthur Bliss – is marginally less fortunate, with its dynamics overwhelming the tedious dialogue, but, as O'Brien puts it, "the visual power would carry it even if the dialogue track was turned off; the film almost implies this by its use of superimposed titles to convey some of the most important plot points."

The Criterion edition also includes an interview with cultural historian Christopher Frayling, commentary by film historian David Kalat, and bonus special effects footage by László Moholy-Nagy.

Also out today:

Quartet (Starz, $29.98 DVD): Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut is a whimsical comedy/drama. Read Louis Black's review here.

Jack the Giant Slayer (New Line Home Video, $35.99 combo): Those beautiful special effects will look great on your flatscreen, but will the story flesh out any better? Read our review here.

The Last Exorcism: Part II (Sony, $30.99 DVD): The devil has very little on his docket. Read our review here.


The Violet Crown Cinema will screen Things To Come tonight at 7:30pm as part of its Arthouse Monthly series in partnership with the Criterion Collection. Visit the VCC website for tickets and details.

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