Review: Last and First Men

The late Icelandic film composer Johann Johannsson amassed an admirably ecelctic body of soundtrack work that ranged from Hollywood potboilers to pure art cinema, and the posthumously released Last and First Men is the only film he directed. The score is impressive, but while watching the film the music isn’t the thing you pay attention to. Overall, this 70-minute movie is even more minimalist in design than his music, which normally combines orchestral compositions with electronic filigree and loops. In that regard, one can see Johannsson’s sensibility more clearly here, since, like his music, the visual and verbal elements are hybridized. The theme, in fact, has already been noted as perhaps a variation on the ideas presented in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, for which Johannsson wrote the score. But it’s very, very different.

The clinically precise narration, in English, is taken directly from a book of the same name by early 20th century philosopher Olaf Stapledon, which comprises a message to 20th century civilization from 200 million years into the future by a generation of humanity that is facing annihilation due to the self-implosion of the sun. Reportedly, the book, published in 1930, inspired Arthur C. Clarke to write the short story that was eventually adapted as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its apocalyptic pronouncements are stripped of all sentimentality. In fact, thanks to Tilda Swinton’s clinically precise voiceover, it is sometimes difficult to follow the musings on 2 billion years of human endeavor that these future beings try to elucidate. It’s been said that many filmmakers have pondered a movie version of the book, and you can see why they gave up. 

But that doesn’t seem to be Johannsson’s purpose anyway. His visuals are mostly static black-and-whit images of brutalist monuments that are meant to illustrate the way humanity has attempted to leave its mark on eternity. In truth, the sculptures were commissioned by the post-communist Yugoslavian leader Tito. They are scattered throughout Eastern Europe as an affront to socialist realism, abstract in the most hackneyed way in that they represent nothing except their unnaturalness in natural settings. (Harper’s magazine recently ran an article about how these monuments have become very popular tourist attractions, though it has nothing to do with this movie.) The program notes suggest Johannsson was always fascinated by mankind’s striving for utopia, and the visual, narrative, and musical elements do combine to render a kind of horrible, material millennialism, except that there is no religious component. Stapledon, supposedly, was so traumatized by the cruelty of the first half of the 20th century that all he could think about was the far future, and this film certainly feels like an attempt to come to grips with a mindset that can only be imagined. Film may not be the ideal medium for the “work” (apparently, it is supposed to be peformed in concert form with live musicians and a narrator), but even as an experiment it is scary and haunting. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Last and First Men home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Zik Zak Filmworks/Johann Johannsson

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