Last and First Men review: Dazzling and unique
James R | On 30, Jul 2020
Director: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cast: Tilda Swinton
Watch Last and First Men online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Jóhann Jóhannsson is a sorely missed talent. As a composer, his musical voice was unmistakeable, capable of moving, thrilling, filling you with dread and capturing a sense of wonder and awe that repeatedly befuddled any expectations from a conventional film score. His soundtrack for Arrival alone was a technical marvel, using innovative instrumentation to ethereal effect. The prospect of him directing a film, then, was a tantalising one indeed, and it’s both wonderful and poignant that his sole directorial effort, Last and First Men, was completed before he passed away in 2018.
Loosely inspired by Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel (no, us neither), the film sees a message sent back from the future to the present – a warning of the Earth and humankind’s destruction in 2 billion years’ time. We don’t see this utopian world, which is apparently the 18th evolution from our current form, we just get to see our own world, shot in stark monochrome while the message is spoken aloud by Tilda Swinton. To call it experimental is something of an understatement.
Tilda Swinton’s voice is perfectly chosen, bringing a chilling detachment, a moving intimacy and an imperious alien quality to what is essentially a 70-minute monologue. “We who are the last men urgently desire to communicate with you,” she begins and only gets more ominous from there, as she describes in detail the simianesque features of what humanity has become, from magnifying lenses that outperform our modern telescopes to gestation periods that are only dwarfed by our race’s acceptance of our inevitable demise.
The result is part sci-fi and part horror film, even though the form appears to be like a documentary, and the fusing of matter-of-fact non-fiction footage with imaginative, fantastical and creepy mental images is something remarkably haunting.
On screen we see clips of concrete statues commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Bros Tito, towering edifices that reach into the sky like Kubrickian monoliths. The context of their creation and design isn’t explained; that becomes lost in time for us as much as it is for Swinton’s species, leaving us drifting past our own history with little to anchor us. In this new context, a meditation on extinction and humankind’s legacy, these Brutalist beasts become timeless, resilient tributes to human achievement – or what was once considered human achievement.
Throughout, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music plays a central role, gradually introducing a hulking sense of permanent dread and fleeting fragility. That the film starts with silence is testament to the composer’s understanding of how to use sound – and when not to use it – and he marries his swelling orchestral flourishes with images that occasionally move from the stark monochrome to brief dots of colour. The result is a bleak, dark piece of cinematic art that, if you can get on its wavelength, is unlike anything else you’ll watch this year. It’s a glimpse of an artist hitting his full creative stride, which leaves you wishing you could hear more of what this tragically departed voice had to say.
Last and First Men is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.
Last and First Men premiered online as part of the 2020 Edinburgh International Film Festival. See the full line-up here.