The Saturday matinee sci-fi favorite is back!
For those worried about the way the current obsession with comic books has dominated the box office in recent years should do well to remember that this isn’t the first time that genre fare has been inescapable at the theater. In the wake of Star Wars’ success, studios through any sci-fi tinged script into production regardless of quality in the hope of getting a film made. Famously, this gold rush gave us Alien, but it also left a whole host of middling-to-bad science fiction films in its wake. The Shape of Things to Come certainly belongs in that latter camp rather than the former. Though Blue Underground has given the film its due on Blu-ray, it will only be appreciated by a select few.
The Shape of Things to Come is ostensibly based on H. G. Well’s 1933 novel of the same name (previously adapted as the brilliant 1936 feature Things to Come). The comparisons stop there, as The Shape of Things to Come shares almost nothing with the Wells novel or the previous adaptation. Instead, we get a story set in “the tomorrow after tomorrow” when Earth’s resources have been wasted. We open on a moon colony under threat from Emperor Omus (Jack Palance, City Slickers). I wish I was making this up, but Omus wants to rule the remaining human population, and he’s willing to send a ship full of suicide-robots and manipulate the market for a drug that is the future of human survival (and only comes from Omus’ planet). But the moon colonists want to fight back, so Dr. Caball (Barry Morse, Space 1999) gathers his children and one of Omus’ repurposed robots to strike back at the threat.
H.G. Wells published his novel on the eve of World War II, and his book gets the conflict disastrously wrong. But the troubles don’t end there. Told in five sections that each recount the events of the then-future, Wells’ book also describes the abolition of religion (to better allow the “Modern State” to control its people) and the rise of a government that sounds positively chilling in the wake of the rise of Hitler and Stalin. But for all that it’s a hopeful book that imagines humanity as able to put away war and strife to lead a technologically-driven utopian existence. Since we’re almost half-way through the “future” imagined by Wells (his novel ends in 2106, 90 years from us as we are 83 years from the book’s publication), it’s easy to laugh at what Wells got wrong.
It’s even easier to laugh at this “adaptation.” Though I doubt that Dan Harmon and crew had The Shape of Things to Come in mind when they made the “Intro to Recycled Cinema” episode in Community’s last season, they might as well have. In the episode, footage of one character goes viral, so the rest of the cast attempt to craft a film around a few moments of film featuring the now-famous character. The result is a largely-improvised “film” that features the lowest-budget effects imaginably, continuity errors galore, and a plot that is largely improvised. I’d definitely recommend watching “Intro to Recycled Cinema” before wasting your time with The Shape of Things to Come. You get all the same material, but you only invest 22 minutes of your life.
If, however, you take the time to watch The Shape of Things to Come, you’ll be treated to a narrative that has nothing whatsoever to do with Wells’ novel. Instead, it’s a generic “adventure” plot with sci-fi trappings that reads on the page like a third-generation dupe of a Flash Gordon episode. Like that old schoolyard game of Telephone, The Shape of Things to Come plays like someone described a sci-fi film to someone who had never seen one before, and then that person went and told the filmmakers what a sci-fi film should be. There’s moon bases and scientists and spaceships, but the actual plot could maybe fill up a 45-minute TV episode. And the effects budget was spent renting office furniture instead of crafting futuristic sets. Supposedly this film cost two million U.S. dollars, but unless it went up the noses of the filmmakers, it isn’t anywhere onscreen.
But every dog has his proverbial day, and it’s hard to imagine The Shape of Things to Come getting better treatment than the one provided on this Blu-ray disc. The 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer perfectly demonstrates the limitations of the format. The film looks soft and lacking in color, but these are obviously the result of choices by the filmmakers rather than any problems with this transfer. You can tell because stuff is also frequently not in focus, like the team didn’t have the time and/or money to get it right. The film doesn’t look great, but that’s not the fault of this Blu-ray. Even a 35mm, fully-restored print probably wouldn’t look any better. But the film, given likely-low audience expectation, looks fine enough. Though the DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track isn’t much better than the video, the Blu-ray does get credit for including it alongside and DTS-HD 1.0 mono track as well. Both sound dull, with dialogue that sounds recorded in a phonebooth. There’s little dynamic range or directionality, but like the video it is free of any technical problems like hiss or distortion.
Extras are surprisingly strong for a release of this vintage. Newly recorded are two interviews, one with star Nicholas Campbell and the other with composer Paul Hoffert. Together they run a little over 30 minutes, and the pair are candid about the film and how they came to work on it. The rest is primarily promotional material, including the film’s French trailer, a TV spot, a gallery of press photos and pages from the pressbook released to promote the film.
The Shape of Things to Come might appeal to those looking for a film to give the MST3K treatment or who want to see every sci-fi film ever made. Pretty much everyone else can skip this film, even if Blue Underground have down a fine job releasing it on Blu-ray.