‘H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come’ (1979): Silly sci-fi is an ultra-cheap epic

Of course it’s laid-back and cheap-looking…it’s Canadian.

Sooooooo…it’s been a long, long time since we’ve got any freebies promotional materials from Blue Underground, so why not rehash write a review of one of their more enjoyable Blu-ray releases, say…something light and summery, like the sci-fi opus H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, so we can get back on the same page of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Capice, amigos?

By Paul Mavis

A couple of years back, Blue Underground released on Blu-ray H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, the ultra-chintzy Harry Alan Towers (yes!) Canadian sci-fi epic from 1979, released here in the States by equally sleazy Film Ventures International, and starring Jack Palance, Carol Lynley, Barry Morse, John Ireland, Nicholas Campbell, and Eddie “Anne-Marie Martin” Benton. As modest and unassuming as its budget, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come for some reason seems to have enraged most of the online critics that reviewed it, and the fanboys who saw it.

While I’m certainly not going to make a case for H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come being on par with superior late 70s/early 80s sci-fi like Starcrash, Krull, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Message from Space, The Black Hole, or the Senssuround release of the TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century…it sure as hell beats all the Star Wars and Star Trek movies (I love to get letters!).

Click to order H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come on Blu-ray.

The Moon, seven years after “The Robot Wars” have left Earth a desolate wasteland (yes, that was six months after Biden stole the election). What’s left of the human race lives in a domed city, New Washington, where the “Moon Council,” comprised of appeasing, cowardly politicians like Senator Smedley (John Ireland), has had quite enough of war, thank you very much. So that means they’ve put the kibosh on science advisor Dr. John Caball’s (Barry Morse) massive, state-of-the-art starship, the Starstreak.

Caball sneers at the Council’s pacifist naivete, an aggressive stance seemingly vindicated when nothing much is done by everyone’s overseer, Lomax, the Master Computer, when an empty cargo ship from Delta Three smashes into the city’s dome. You see, Delta Three, a distant planet, is the only source of mined RADIC-Q-2, a miracle drug that keeps the radiated humans alive. So when Cabal and Smedley call D3 to ask what the hell is going on, they don’t get Governor Nikki (Carol Lynley), they get Robot Master Omus (Jack Palance), who has deposed Nikki and declared himself emperor of the planet. He sent the cargo ship to crash into New Washington—that’s called an “attention getter”—so he could make a demand: install him as the Moon’s and Earth’s Supreme Commander, and he will create a society serviced by robots that will free everyone from want (sound increasingly familiar today?).

Smedley and Lomax shrug their shoulders at this fiat, but not the freedom-loving Cabal. He defies orders and launches Starstreak, along with his son Jason (Nicholas Campbell) and Smedley’s daughter, Kim (Eddie Benton), but not before getting a lethal dose of radiation bringing the spectrum drive engines on line. Coming along for the ride is “Sparks,” the robot pilot of the crashed cargo ship that Kim has reprogrammed. Will the plucky crew make it to D3, to link up with Governor Nikki’s rebellion to destroy Omus? And will they save the few strange, camouflaged survivors on Earth?

When I first watched H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, it didn’t ring any bells, other than the title link to its more famous literary and cinematic antecedents. So when I looked up some info and reviews online, I was somewhat taken aback at the fairly unhinged vitriol that was aimed at what I subsequently found to be an admittedly impoverished and often goofily wrong-headed—but fairly innocuous—sci-fi sub-sub-sub-epic. Amid the bashing, most of the reviewers agreed on one thing: it was somehow sacrilege for this grade Z horror to appropriate the late, great H.G. Wells’ name for its title, when the story had nothing to do with either Wells’ novel or his screenplay for producer Alexander Korda’s 1936 same- named classic, directed by William Cameron Menzies.

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Well…maybe they haven’t read Wells in awhile (yikes…and read up on the guy’s bio while you’re at it: a real headcase), but plastering his name on this meager little Canadian opus is hardly going to do Wells’ overinflated rep any harm (who even reads him anymore?). As for director Menzies’ outing all those years ago, the new H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come actually does crib one or two ideas from that 1936 “classic” (which ain’t so hot, either, quite frankly), including a one-manned (or robot) enemy plane wrecking havoc on a city, a long-running war that destroys Earth, a minor warlord rising to power, promising peace through science, and the premature launching of a space probe against the wishes of a segment of society. Knowing that notorious schlock producer Harry Alan Towers never met a public domain story he didn’t like to rip off (Korda’s movie went p.d. in 1964), or Towers’ penny-pinching penchant for loosely adapting already established literary properties from famous authors (he rightly knew that a famous author’s name in the credits, like Christie, Rohmer, or Wallace, could only help the box office), it’s not at all surprising—nor particularly egregious—that he’d slap H.G. Wells’ name on this jumped-up little scrapper.

And not surprising, either, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come comes off like a lot of Towers’ later efforts: ultra-cheap, with story corners cut left and right amid the flimsy sets…but with a certain “the TV’s on so we might as well stare at it” watchability that’s a testament to his inexplicable lowest-bar luck. You can knock him all you want (it’s a fair cop), but you can’t deny Towers consistently delivered movies someone must have wanted to watch, for over 45 years (and what a perfect releasing partner he found here in Edward L. Montoro’s deliciously dodgy Film Ventures International, of Grizzly, The Dark, The Incubus,Pieces, The House on Sorority Row, and definitely last, Great White, infamy).

Originally conceived as a Canadian TV pilot (possibly for syndication?) and quickly churned out to capitalize on the Star Wars phenomenon, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come begins with the de rigeur introductory crawl setting the context of the story against a not too shabby matte painting of the galaxy and composer Paul Hoffert’s acceptable Buck Rogers in the 25th Century disco knock-off title theme…before someone spells “its” wrong in the text (apparently the budget didn’t provide for a proofreader).

And that’s pretty much the dynamic that plays out for the rest of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. You watch a scene and think, “Well…that’s okay, considering…” before some plot hole opens up a mile wide, or some set wobbles, and you start cracking up. The script, written by Martin Lager (stuff like Klondike Fever and Deadly Harvest) moves through its storyline too quickly for its own good, dropping potentially interesting subplots outright (the whole “John Ireland and the Moon Council are pacifist weaklings,” and “Master Computer Lomax is an incompetent boob”), or giving them humorous short shrift (Carol Lynley’s comically unprepossessing rebel band is only briefly featured every 15 minutes or so, to the point where you keep forgetting she’s in the movie).

Some of Lager’s ideas are sabotaged by the limited production (we’re told Earth is an uninhabitable wasteland savaged by war…but Benton and Campbell touch down to a stark, rather gorgeous Ontario woodscape that just needs a little cabin with smoke coming out of its chimney to make us feel all toasty and cozy inside), while others are hinted at but not developed. One original element this knock-off has over Star Wars: Sparks the robot has sexual feelings for his master—he stares at Benton with lust, and smoke comes out of head when she touches him…but any further exploration of funky robot/hottie action is dropped before the flesh hits the metal (Lager also pens a scene remarkably similar to one later used in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Morse willingly takes a deadly dose of radiation to put the Starstreak’s engines back on line).

Believe it or not, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come’s special effects and sets fare better than the script (the sets are minimalist and threadbare, but they’re quite nicely lit by Murder By Decree and A Christmas Story pro, Reginald H. Morris). Sure, they’re a cut-rate, bargain-basement lot, but it’s an honest cheapness, with respectable-for-a-13-year-old-hobby-enthusiast models, and silly-yet-solid-looking robots that at least look like someone tried their best (Palance’s hefty-but-wobbly evil black robots come off better than Sparks, who resembles a plumb bob with eight-track players inserted into it and one of those plastic black ball ceiling security cameras from Kmart stuck on top as a head). Some of the optical effects aren’t bad (that space weaving of the dome was actually pretty cool, while the acid trip gravity force field flip-out was hilarious…yet it got the job done). And even when they’re bad, the bad effects are poor enough to be amusing (my favorite is Palance’s spinning Chroma key hologram, filling up the sky to big laughs, rather like Max Von Sydow’s scary-huge Jesus fade-out in The Greatest Story Ever Told).

Director George McCowan had a respectable resume by the time H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come wound down his big-screen career, with titles like Carter’s Army, The Magnificent Seven Ride, Shadow of the Hawk, and best known Frogs showing he could take unexceptional genre material and make a decent, watchable pic. After hearing Nicholas Campbell discuss McCowan’s unconventional direction in this disc’s bonus interview, however, I’m hesitant to estimate how much he had to do with actually shaping the movie’s tone. But considering the surprisingly calm, naturalistic turns here (even eternal hambone Palance takes quite a while to finally go to “11”), McCowan must have deliberately kept his finger off the “overload” button.

Always underrated Ireland isn’t around long enough to create a character, but his brief, steely presence alone makes an impression, while consummate pro Morse does his usual stand-up job, treating this paycheck assignment with the same considered focus as you’d expect he’d give Shakespeare. Poor miscast Lynley is in the wrong place here at the wrong time in her career (The Poseidon Adventure did nothing for her…), but relative newcomers Campbell and Benton keep themselves low-key and grounded, and it works, because going all hokey and broad against these silly sets and situations would only lead to embarrassment.

Speaking of “hokey,” “broad,” and “embarrassment,” thank God Palance finally gives us the jacked goods we want toward the end of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, bellowing, “I AM YOUR CREATOR!” to two rather sleepy rebel robots, as we the audience hit the floor in hysterics (I’m telling you: when he gets hit in the face with those bricks as D3 starts blowing up, I thought I was going to die laughing. Jesus what an ignominious shot of a great actor to leave in a movie…). Palance, at this point inbetween TV gigs (the unsuccessful Bronk and the cash cow Ripley’s Believe it Or Not!), while churning out dire exploiters like The Cop in Blue Jeans and Welcome to Blood City, doesn’t have to do much to stand out among the teetering robots and the laid-back Canadian actors. The jolt he eventually provides comes just at the right moment in H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, when we’re just about to give up on being tolerant with its misfires. Just a tad more of that enjoyable broadness in all aspects of the production might have put H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come a little further over in the plus column.

Just a quick note about the extras for those handsome, successful, sexy people over at Blue Underground (too much?). Jason’s Journey (13:56), a new interview with Nicholas Campbell, is one of the funniest ones I’ve ever heard on a disc. Campbell opens up with, “Oh, it was the worst,” and then proceeds to detail all the craziness that accompanied working on a Harry Alan Towers production (“I had great affection for [Towers], but he was pretty sleazy.” Classic.). Campbell spills the beans on Lynley setting up Palance’s pot delivery (Campbell’s description of crazed Palance’s acceptance of the weed is priceless), while also implying that Towers was nailing no less than Vanity at the time of shooting (a tip of the hat, maestro!). By far the best anecdote is Campbell’s description of McGowen directing a cold morning location shot (he did it inside a warm car, watching the action in the rear view mirror, cracking the window to bark orders). As far as I’m concerned, Campbell needs to be interviewed for every single movie he’s ever made. Stat.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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