Stars can conceive, and they can kill.
Two billion years from now, humanity will be snuffed out. Our sun will collapse, and the life-giving Earth will once again be a cold lump of rock floating in space. So with no way out, humanity puts down its last will and testament as a way to mark that we were here.
These words culled from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 science fiction novel, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, trace 18 species of men, of which we are the first. Each species rises and falls the way empires rise and fall; the way the moon waxes and wanes; the way the tides rise and recede. The words are spoken by Tilda Swinton and accompanied by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wall-to-wall atmospheric score.
Jóhannsson also directed Last and First Men, available now via Metrograph’s virtual cinema. Last and First Men is Jóhannsson’s feature debut. It also stands as his final and only film: Jóhannsson died in Berlin on Feb. 9, 2018. German toxicology reports a lethal combination of cocaine and flu medication did him in. Jóhannsson was 48.
The Icelandic composer’s star was on the rise in recent years. His score for The Theory of Everything (2015) garnered attention, but it was the elliptical work of Arrival (2016) that really caught the public’s ear.
And Last and First Men would have certainly caught moviegoers’ eyes—particularly fans of slow cinema, poetic cinema, art cinema—and led to more projects. Filmed by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen in grainy and hypnotic 16mm black and white, Last and First Men is comprised strictly of images of concrete sculptures, each one located in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Some look like the monoliths from 2001. Some have touches of anthropomorphism. Others look like abstract aliens. None of them look of this world. Whether these are the creations of the last or the first men of the title remains a fluid question.
There are no people, no faces, no icons to go with these Brutalist sculptures. One image does have a bird flying across the frame, and it feels like a disruption. Why editor Mark Bukdahl chose to leave this shot in is just another question that swirls through your brain while watching the film.
Last and First Men is not long, 70 minutes with credits, yet the methodical structure of the images, the droning score that rises and falls—sometimes with resolution, sometimes without—allows a great deal of space for wonder. How wonderful.
Last and First Men (2020)
Directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Written by Jóhann Jóhannsson and José Enrique Macián
Based on the novel by Olaf Stapledon
Produced by Thor Sigurjonsson
Narrated by Tilda Swinton
Metrograph Pictures, Not rated, Running time 70 minutes, Opens virtually Dec. 10, 2021.