Jóhann Jóhannsson had a bright future ahead of him. The much-celebrated Icelandic composer of such films as Sicario, Arrival and Mandy, as well as many other original arrangements, sadly passed away at the age of 48 following a drug overdose two years ago. It is a great pity that we’ll never hear a piece of music again from a composer who was capable of stirring an incredible sense of empathy, atmosphere, and mood through their work. But before he left us, he did manage to direct one feature, an art piece as bewildering as any of complex orchestrations. 

Narrated by Tilda Swinton, Last and First Men is a loose adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s classic science fiction novel, which tells the history of the human race some two billion years into the future. What we’re treated to is an account from one of the last remaining members of mankind on the brink of extinction, beaming their message across time and space in the hope of improving the development of their species. 

Shooting on 16mm black and white film, Jóhannsson uses the weird sculptures and structures that can be found across the former Yugoslavia landscape as the visual element of his exhibition piece. These forms are the only thing we see, with a variety of shots circling in, tracking close and getting lost in the shapes of the buildings and statues. Whether these images are meant to represent the ruins of the Earth left behind by the first race of humans, or if they stand as the architecture of the future species who have resettled on Neptune is unclear, but their other-worldliness is enough to make your imagination run as wild as possible. 

These images sometimes match up just enough to the nature of the narration and the music, but there are times where other images are left somewhat adrift, leaving you a little puzzled as to why certain parts of the footage have been paired with the lines of narration. Last and First Men is ultimately, then, more interesting as an aural exhibition than it is a visual one. Swinton’s smooth as butter narration is engrossing and calming, with Stapledon’s prose being brought to life with a voice of great wisdom and intelligence. When it comes to casting a narrator to play a higher advanced form of human being, Tilda Swinton does seem to be your best bet. 

It is Jóhannsson’s music, composed alongside Yair Elazar Glotman, that leaves a mark more than anything else. Deep, ominous choirs mixed with booming bass and high pitched strings colour this tale as one of looming doom and destruction, but also one filled with touches of hope and an optimism that destiny might be changed. Essentially, it’s a symphonic spiritual sequel to Arrival, matching that film’s foreboding soundtrack to both mesmerise and perplex The louder you experience this film the better, be it through a sound system or a very good pair of headphones, as it is the music that feels the most valuable artefact across the landscape that the film presents, as it is some of the last we’ll ever hear from the mind of a great composer and artist. 

Last and First Men is an art film that can test your patience, and for some it will certainly feel aimless and disconnected, But if you let your imagination fill in the gaps and make the connections where you see fit, it can be easy to lose yourself in Jóhannsson’s multimedia expression of a classic science fiction story that is highly captivating in its other-worldliness. That it should be the first and last film to be made by Jóhannsson is a tragedy that now seems oddly fitting as a tribute to his artistry and what he was able to offer in a fascinating career cut short.  

Dir: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Scr: Jóhann Jóhannsson, José Enrique Macián, based on the novel by Olaf Stapledon

Narrator: Tilda Swinton

Prd: Thor Sigurjonsson

DOP: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson, Yair Elazar Glotman

Country: Iceland

Year: 2020

Run time: 71 minutes 

Last and First Men is available on demand from July 30th. 

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