Movie Review – Last and First Men

Last and First Men (2020)
Written by Jóhann Jóhannsson & José Enrique Macián
Directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson

In 2016, I went to the theater to see Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. One of the things that stuck with me when the end credits rolled was the haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Since his first solo album in 2002, the Icelandic composer had already established himself blending traditional orchestra, electronic instruments, and choral elements. Last and First Men would be his only directorial effort. It premiered in early 2020 at the Berlin Film Festival, but Jóhannsson had died in 2018. Toxicology reports showed a lethal combination of cocaine and flu medication in his system. Jóhannsson was only 48 years old.

Last and First Men is based on a 1930 novel by British science fiction author Olaf Stapeldon. The book is ambitious as it chronicles the eighteen species of humans over two billion years. The conceit is that the author claims he has been channeled by one of the 18th from the future to record this history. The 18th will be the final iteration of man, and extinction is imminent. Jóhannsson wrote a concept album of instrumental music that works as an independent piece and as the film’s score. 

The film’s visuals are 16mm black-and-white footage of brutalist sculptures in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. They have been weathered down a bit, so they appear ancient while their design hints at something more modern. Last and First Men is inarguably a science fiction film, but not one interested in special effects or even characters and a plot. This is a mood piece very much like Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The black-and-white footage and narration both hint at that 1960s science fiction masterpiece.

Jóhannsson had said that when he first saw the sculpture, he was struck with a sense of alienness. He was struck without nature had overtaken them statues, and it made him think about a once-great civilization that was forgotten to time. Jóhannsson was always very interested in the idea of decaying societies; his music even had a feeling of audio loops that grew more vast with each iteration. The monuments are shot almost like spaceships in 2001 or Star Wars. The camera will slowly push in or drift alongside one. Some moments create the illusion of motion. You feel like this is some grand stony vessel floating soundlessly in the sky. It’s a technology that appears primordial but is, in fact, far beyond anything we are capable of. 

The music evokes a sense that we are in the place of old things, communing with a mind beyond ours. The narration even explains that they are a telepathic species by nature, but as the light of the sun dies, they are learning to vocalize more. And they admit, to communicate with our stage of humanity, they must speak because we wouldn’t understand their telepathy. There are these deep bass sounds, strings that seem to mirror the intelligence that has moved beyond our forms. I was reminded of the aliens in Arrival, elephantine & arthropods all at once. Deep guttural blasts of sound that operated on a different field of understanding than we possess.

Tilda Swinton narrates from a script adapted by Jóhannsson and his collaborator José Enrique Macián. She is the voice of one of the eighteenth, telling us about their evolution on Neptune, how their species lives for millions of years, and that the solar system is reaching its dying moment. Swinton’s narration begins as very expository, but as the film progresses, she has a request for those of us in the past who can hear her words. The narrator eventually confesses that as physically different as their species is from us, we both live life for the same fundamental goals, struggle against the destructive powers of the universe to forge a life and contentment for those we love. “We are flash in the life of the cosmos,” says Swinton’s narrator. This is work about mortality and the inevitable end and the beautiful struggle that happens along the way.

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