Review Date: 3/17/17
Cast: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson
Based on a story by H.G. Wells, this is an overly ambitious political propaganda piece that chronicles the downfall of human society and the eventual construction of utopia one hundred years later. A world war breaks out in 1940 that lasts over twenty years. By the mid 1960s, what's left of the human race is ravaged by poverty, hunger, and disease, and feudal warlords rule whatever lands and people they can appropriate. A group of scientists and engineers led by the visionary John Cabal (Raymond Massey) embark on a crusade to clean up the planet, bring it out of the dark ages, and unite the people in the name of peace and progress. Unfortunately, peace and prosperity don't sit well with everyone, and even the worry-free utopia of tomorrow is threatened by ignorant mobs who only want to hurt people and break stuff.
The production is pretty amazing for the time period, and clearly a lot of money and talent was invested in it. Unfortunately, many of the visual effects haven't aged well and look laughably tacky. However, they still do an admirable job of evoking the desired emotional response. The film is extremely cynical and opens with an unrestrained barrage of grim footage depicting the horrors of endless warfare and the futility of senseless killing. The entire second act shows humanity at its worst and focuses on a small nation-state that's ruled by a boisterous and moronic warmonger (Ralph Richardson) who bullies the townspeople, imprisons scientists, abolishes reading and education, has no understanding of how anything works, throws temper tantrums like a petulant child, and promotes the idea that everlasting peace can only be achieved by maintaining endless hostilities with bordering states. The similarities to Donald Trump are unsettling and truly terrifying. Fortunately, science and sanity eventually save the day and rebuild society, but the pendulum swings back towards ignorance and fear by the end of the film, serving as a warning that no matter how enlightened we may become, our race is forever doomed to destroy itself and everything it comes in contact with.
It's a challenging film to watch, as the narrative structure is a bit disjointed and the dialog comes across as preachy and uncomfortably self-important. The set pieces are overly indulgent and go on longer than they probably should, which adds to the already sluggish pacing. It's definitely a film with a strong cautionary message, and everything supports that singular goal. An unfortunate side effect is that apart from the fascinating visuals, the film lacks entertainment value and feels more like a sermon than a science fiction adventure. But in the purest sense, social commentary is what science fiction is supposed to be all about.