Review: Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

A black trapezium floats in the upper half of the screen in the first, striking shot of Last and First Men. The camera slowly pans upwards and a geometrical building is suddenly exposed above us. It’s one of many mind-bending images that Icelandic director Jóhann Jóhannsson and his DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen craft during this existential journey of a film. A voice, embodied by Tilda Swinton, speaks to us from two billion terrestrial years in the future, where humans have evolved into ten more species and are now facing an almost inescapable death. It’s hardly the first time it has happened though, as the voice tells of a time when humans were able to move to Neptune after the death of Earth.

Through its 70 minutes the film highlights the paradoxical nature of human existence: both insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos and deeply meaningful for everyone involved in it. The visuals reinforce this idea. They are entirely composed of shots of brutalist buildings that look like they’re from outer space, but are actually found in the Balkan Peninsula. Their imposing shapes and menacing monumentality evoke the grandness of humanity, but the way they’re shot from far below evokes its tininess. The camerawork serves thus as an interrogation.

Shot in 16 mm black-and-white film, the images have a tactile quality that suits the paradoxical feeling in the film’s heart: it looks like found footage, images of a perpetual past paired with a futuristic monologue. We’re witnessing an archaeological gaze from the future placed upon the few and only remains left of hundreds of civilizations. The images are gracefully accompanied by a drone-based score not unlike the ones that made Jóhannsson a household name in the film music world, especially with his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve on Arrival, Sicario, and Prisoners.

The music is chilling, managing to both generate and release tension, and to create a hypnotic feeling next to Swinton’s narration. But it’s in this narration that the film limps. The indisputable technical impressiveness is marred by a narrative thinness difficult to hide, especially when set against other films that have had similar concerns. Swinton’s voice, devoid of emotion, immediately recalls the character of Emily Prime in Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow. She also came from the future, defying time travel rules, to retrieve a memory from the original Emily (from whom she was cloned) that may give meaning to her life. Last and First Men‘s landscape shots may also call to mind Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi, which did away with words altogether to deliver an entrancing view of a world in eternal change. The fascination with space in Jóhannsson’s film, exemplified by a biological feature in the humans of the future with which they can gaze at space with a ‘third eye’ similar in shape to a telescope, is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, which comparably used a female narrator (Cate Blanchett, in that case) as its only voice.

While those three films found inventive ways to comment on their themes – World of Tomorrow through deadpan humor and glitch aesthetics, Koyaanisqatsi through its rhythmic editing and roller-coaster score, Voyage of Time through a spiritual lens – Last and First Men‘s message feels a bit too ascetic and clinical. Even though it thankfully doesn’t stop at a simple tale of environmentalism, it is also decidedly apolitical. It may be the fact that the story is adapted from a 1930 novel, but the film puts forward an image of a shared univocal, utopian humanity that rings old-fashioned in the current climate, when narratives of the future have been questioned to understand how they reproduce historical power relations (see for example Afrofuturism or its recent development Black Quantum Futurism).

Last and First Men was conceived as a performance, presented at the Manchester International Festival with a live orchestra in 2017, before acquiring its film form at the 2020 Berlinale. It’s a shame that most people will probably see it at home, given the current circumstances, for it is a film that would greatly benefit from a theatrical experience or that would strongly work, as other reviewers have pointed out, as an art installation. Hopefully we’ll get to catch it in that form in a not too distant future.