Last and First Men tracks the beginning and end of humanity. It is a film that ranks with Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey and it may even break your heart, says Simon Ings
27 January 2021
Streaming on BFI Player
“IT’S a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete,” mused Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson about his only feature-length film. He was still working on Last and First Men when he died, aged 48, in 2018.
Admired for his keening orchestral pieces, Jóhannsson was well known for his film work: Prisoners and Sicario were made strange by his sometimes terrifying, thumping soundtracks.
Last and First Men is, by contrast, contemplative and surreal. It uses a series of zooms and tracking shots set against eerie architectural forms, shot in monochrome 16-millimetre film by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.
The film draws its inspiration and script (a haunting, sometimes chilly, off-screen monologue performed by Tilda Swinton) from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel of the same name. His day job at the time of writing – lecturing on politics and ethics at the University of Liverpool, UK – seems of little moment now, but his sci-fi novels have barely been out of print and still set a dauntingly high bar.
Last and First Men is a 2-billion-year history, detailing the dreams, aspirations, achievements and failings of 17 different kinds of future humans (Homo sapiens is first). In the light of an ageing sun, they evolve, blossom, speciate, die; the film is set in the moment of extinction.
Stapledon’s book isn’t a drama. There are no actors or action. It isn’t really a novel, more a haunting academic paper from the beyond. The idea to use the book came late in Jóhannsson’s project, which began life as a film essay on Spomeniks, the huge, brutalist war memorials erected in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between the 1960s and the 1980s by dictator Jozip Broz Tito.
“Who knew that staring at concrete and listening to the end of humanity could wet the watcher’s eye?”
In 2017, the film, with a live performance of an early score, was screened at the Manchester International Festival. Jóhannsson told the audience how Tito thought he was building a utopian experimental state that would unite Slavic nations. Because there were so many different religions, the architects looked to Mayan and Sumerian art, rather than religious icons. “That’s why they [spomeniks] look so alien and otherworldly,” he explained.
Swinton’s regretful monologue proves an ideal foil for the film’s explorations, lifting what would be a stunning but slight piece into dizzying, speculative territory: the last living human, contemplating the leavings of 2 billion years.
Last and First Men was left unfinished. The film was cut and Swinton had recorded the monologue by the time the film was presented at the Manchester International Festival. As far as Jóhannsson was concerned, there was still a lot to be done to finish the score. On his death, Yair Elazar Glotman was brought on board to arrange his notes and come up with a final performance for the soundtrack. No one hearing how the film was put together would imagine it could amount to more than a tribute, but sometimes the gods are kind. It is hugely successful, wholly deserving of a place beside Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Who knew that staring at concrete and listening to the end of humanity could wet the watcher’s eye and break their heart? It is tragic that Jóhannsson didn’t live to see that, in his own words, “we’ve taken all these elements and made something beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.”
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