Last and First Men by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Review)

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final work is this adaptation of a 1930 sci-fi novel about the end of humanity in the distant future.
Last and First Men - Jóhann Jóhannsson

Given his status as a composer, both for works like Virðulegu Forsetar and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and scores for films including Sicario and Arrival, it may come as a surprise that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final creative work was not a musical composition. Rather, it was a movie adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi novel Last and First Men. But calling Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men a “movie adaptation” feels like something of a misnomer. A better description might be part visual tone poem, part architectural survey, and part existential treatise on human nature and our species’ insignificance in the vastness of the cosmos — and a testament to the loyalty of Jóhannsson’s friends.

Originally published in 1930, Stapledon’s Last and First Men is a chronicle of humanity’s existence and evolution over two billion years; the rise and fall of numerous civilizations; and the many forms humanity takes over the years. The novel, which presaged common sci-fi tropes like genetic engineering and telepathic societies, was hugely influential on the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, C. S. Lewis, and H. P. Lovecraft.

Jóhannsson’s film builds on the novel’s central conceit, that of the very last human species — the titular “Last Men” — transmitting a message billions of years back in time to our present. The message, as delivered by Tilda Swinton’s elegant voice, elucidates humanity’s glories and failures, its various forms and attempts at survival, its impending doom as cosmic phenomena threaten the solar system, and the “Last Men“ s thoughts on the purpose and nature of existence.

Accompanying Swinton’s composed, dispassionate narration are long, slow, sweeping shots of bizarre, alien-looking structures. (Aside from an airplane’s contrail in one scene, no signs of human beings appear anywhere in the film.) The brutalist architecture, captured in stunning black and white by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, does look very much like something designed and constructed by far-future humans. (In truth, the structures are war monuments that were built in former Yugoslavia during the ’60s and ’70s to commemorate World War II battles and concentration camps.)

Swinton’s narration, long shots of Eastern European architecture in the middle of nowhere, and an ominous-yet-haunting score by Jóhannsson and Yair Elazar Glotman — for 70 minutes. That’s Last and First Men on paper. Those who enjoy mocking arthouse cinema as pretentious and highfalutin will find a lot of grist for their arguments here — which is something that even Jóhannsson himself seemed to admit in an interview:

It’s a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete and hear about the end of humanity, but hopefully we’ve taken all these elements and made something beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.

But (maybe) because the country seems to be burning down around us thanks to political cravenness and cowardice, racial injustice and social inequity, and a pandemic with no end in sight, I actually found the film’s philosophical musings and grim pronunciations to be… well, not relaxing or comforting per se, but they do dovetail nicely with the angst and ennui that so many of us feel thanks to the ongoing dumpster fire that is 2020.

Put another way, when your political system is facing an existential crisis, your leaders’ incompetence has allowed tens of thousands of people to die, and many of your fellow citizens think that wearing a mask is tantamount to tyranny, then a message from the distant future that calmly speaks of the universe’s indifference to humanity’s impending doom feels rather fitting. And I say that even though I’m decidedly not a nihilist.

I confess, I did almost doze off once or twice — which is on me for choosing to start the film after 10:00pm — but I was fascinated and transfixed far more often than not. This is a film that’s truly best described as “atmospheric” and I found it very easy to sit back and become absorbed by the film’s stark and striking visuals, or by Swinton’s dulcet descriptions of humanity two billion years from now. (To the latter, I might’ve been predisposed to enjoy Last and First Men given my fondness for far-future sci-fi like Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” and David Zindell’s Neverness.)

Furthermore, the film’s glacial, carefully composed pacing and imagery were a welcome respite from our current info-drenched age that demands you remain constantly logged in and ready to post a hot take on anything the moment it appears in your algorithmically controlled newsfeed.

Earlier, I mentioned that Last and First Men also serves as a testament to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s friends. Sadly, Jóhannsson — who began working on the film in 2010 — died before he could complete the score. It fell to Glotman to complete the film’s music, which he did by collaborating with others who had worked with Jóhannsson and even incorporating the Jóhannsson family’s harmonium into the final score. Last and First Men had its world premiere at the 2020 Berlinale film festival, two years after Jóhannsson’s death.

I don’t think that’s all just some interesting (albeit, melancholy) movie trivia, though. The fact that its own creator didn’t live to see its completion adds more resonance to Last and First Men’s themes of mortality and the ephemeral nature of existence — as do the efforts by Glotman et al. to honor their friend’s creative vision and ensure its legacy. Efforts that, as far as I’m concerned, were more than successful given how complete and engrossing Last and First Men feels.

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