“Listen patiently. We who are the last men earnestly desire to communicate with you.” So speaks our narrator, Tilda Swinton, and “listen patiently” will be her oft-repeated phrase throughout the 70 minutes of Last and First Men. This unusual art film, science fiction meditation, and visual symphony is the first and only film created by the late Jóhann Jóhannson, an Icelandic composer whose works embrace the emotional and cerebral appeal of classical, electronic, ambient, and cinema music. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray allows us to examine the melding of the film’s three elements: the visual, the musical, and the narrative.
To begin with the narrative: British writer-philosopher Olaf Stapledon published Last and First Men in 1930 as the first of his distinctive and influential science fiction novels. This colossal conception adopts the form of a historical essay describing the evolution of humanity in 18 distinct species over two billion years, or “two thousand million years”, as Last and First Men puts it. To escape a dying Earth, humans relocate to Neptune, master genetic engineering and form a telepathic gestalt mind. Knowing that solar destruction is imminent, one of humanity’s last acts is to project its knowledge backward to today’s humans in the form of this history book.
Such a thing hardly sounds filmable, does it? Well, Jóhannson and co-writer José Enrique Macián simply offer a summary of the main points in Swinton’s narration, and that’s that. We hear her utter assertions like “the foetus is carried for 20 months”. That’s nothing, since childhood lasts a thousand years. When things start falling apart, “the normal power of telepathic communication is so unreliable that we have been compelled to fall back upon the archaic practice of vocal symbolism”. Clearly, this is a work of philosophical and scientific ideas unfolding on a massive time scale rather than what we think of as a proper narrative.
Visually, Last and First Men is like a documentary shot in 16mm black and white, complete with flickering white threads and artifacts on the film. What we see are baffling monumental structures in a hilly landscape. For example, the opening image seems like a counterpart to the giant black monolith in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), and just so we know, Clarke is among the many writers who acknowledged his debt to Stapledon.
Instead of being presented in normal style from the ground up, we see this initial image upside down as it appears to descend from the top of the screen, as per the opening spaceship in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). Thus, two sci-fi film milestones are indexed at once.
We can recognize a derelict building, but what are these weird geometrical or winglike structures standing deep within fog? Research reveals most of them as memorials in the former Yugoslavia. They are signs of some alien race from eons before – instant production value. The cinematographer is Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, noted for shooting Sebastian Schipper‘s 140-minute single-take feature Victoria (2015) and Thomas Vinterberg‘s Oscar-winning Another Round (2020).
Musically, Last and First Men is a symphony in glacial movements, building to moments of crescendo and abrupt silence punctuated by the only use of color: green blips on a radar screen wavering to Swinton’s voice. It seems to follow a line from Anton Bruckner‘s slow movements to what the modern critics call sacred minimalism, such as Henryk Górecki, and I like it.
Aside from being the composer, Jóhannson is credited with percussion and tape loops. His co-composer and sound designer, Yair Elazar Glotman, is credited with contrabass, harmonium, tape manipulation, and electronics, which gives you some idea. There are lots of abstract vocals along with strings, saxophone, French horn, and cornet, plus the Budapest Art Orchestra. Perhaps a comparison can be made with the pioneering Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass collaborations starting with Koyaanisqatsi (1982), and perhaps a better comparison is Jóhannson’s score for Bill Morrison’s The Miner’s Hymns (2011).
Jóhannson conceived Last and First Men as a multi-media staging of live music with film and narration, and that’s how it was first performed in Manchester in 2017 and later in London and Sydney. Jóhannson died in 2018. Two years later, the elements were put together as a film completed by Glotman and released posthumously as Jóhannson’s only feature. Since its themes are death, monumentalism, and hope, the film becomes a fitting epitaph to Jóhannson’s legacy. It’s also a surprisingly appropriate celebration of Stapledon.
Even on home video, Last and First Men is impressive for those who heed the narrator’s injunction to be patient and surrender themselves to the film’s flow of images, ideas, and lyricism. As a live event, it must have been a knockout.