Two billion years from now, humanity faces its imminent end as the Sun is dying out. They have planned two contingencies for survival: one project to seed more life throughout the Universe, and another to beam psychic messages back in time, to us. The film Last and First Men purports to be such a message. Based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Olaf Stapledon, it’s a unique and melancholy combination of speculative fiction, documentary, and orchestral chamber piece.
That last musical element makes sense, since the movie was directed by celebrated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Instead of his usual practice with film scores, wherein he’d fit his music to the visions of other directors, his compositions here stand on equal level with the imagery and other sonic components. This is Jóhannsson’s debut film, originating as a multimedia piece in which he conducted an orchestra to accompany black-and-white 16mm footage. It is also his only film, completed before his untimely death in 2018. That knowledge lends extra heft to the movie’s rumination on ephemerality, mortality, and what we leave behind when we’re gone.
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Last and First Men is composed of a trinity of basic components. There’s Jóhannsson’s music, of course. A voiceover provides the “story,” such as it is — mainly narrator Tilda Swinton acting as the voice of the future humans, explaining their history and situation. And then there’s the imagery, every shot featuring one of the abstract spomenik monuments of the former Yugoslavia. These commemorative World War II markers, spread throughout the state’s onetime constituent nations, defy the usual expectations of memorials. They are non-figurative, imposing, and often geographically isolated, standing out from their landscapes. In the film, these monuments are explained to be some of the last remaining accomplishments of humanity, at the end of Earth’s lifetime acting as the beacons used to send the signal to the past.
It’s an evocative recontextualization of these curious structures, many of which were neglected for years following the collapse of Yugoslavia before they became well-known, thanks to the internet. Many were designed as testaments not just to the war’s victims but also to futuristic ideals, and they maintain a sense of majesty even in their decayed state. They are relics from the past but are perfectly convincing as constructs of the future. Now, since Jóhannsson is gone, Last and First Men stands as an eerie epitaph for humankind, a deceased man’s paraphrase of a different man’s text, told with the artifacts of a defunct country, a missive from the past that poses as one from the future. And the magic of cinema is that it works.