Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work as a film composer transcended expectations of the craft, not only supporting a filmmaker’s vision but clarifying its appeal. His dynamic, soul-churning music for “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “Mandy” reached for a visceral depth that suggested he might become one of the all-time greats. Sadly, the Icelandic talent died in 2018 at the age of 48, but not before completing one final achievement that elevated his artistry to a whole new level.
“Last and First Men,” which Jóhannsson directed as a live multimedia performance prior to his death, has been finally completed as a singular 70-minute cinematic event. Guided by Jóhannsson’s ethereal score, this dazzling apocalyptic immersion blends cosmic 16mm black-and-white images of Yugoslavian architecture with a deadpan Tilda Swinton voiceover, resulting in a profound lyrical rumination on the end of days.
It’s also one of the most original science fiction movies in recent memory. “Last and First Men” draws its title and concept from Olaf Stapleton’s 1930 speculative sci-fi novel, in which the last survivors of an advanced society two billion years in the future send a note documenting their utopia — and its imminent destruction — in a cosmic memo to the distant past. While Stapleton’s book detailed multiple eras of human evolution, Jóhannsson and co-writer José Enrique Macián consolidate the unconventional narrative into a riveting 70-minute essay rich with existential contemplation. Prior to his death, Jóhannsson performed the piece in a handful of cities worldwide. The completed feature shows why that presentational approach made sense, even as it maintains its awe-inspiring allure in its final form.
The images of “Last and First Men” capture the sprawling concrete monuments to Yugoslavia’s Tito era. Built in the postwar period and embodying the architectural style known as Brutalism, these hulking blocks loom over the countryside like monsters of rock. There’s an operatic glory to the work, particularly the giant, angular buildings reaching out to the heavens, much like the impossible utopia that Josip Broz Tito thought his society could become. The structures were intended to salute the former president’s unique attempt to balance the two political extremes of socialism and democracy in contrast to the rest of Eastern Europe’s Stalinist extremes, but Jóhannsson never makes that history explicit. In fact, those unfamiliar with so-called “third way” socialism won’t come out of the movie with any new insights. Instead, Jóhannsson’s hypnotic collage transforms the sculptures into magisterial pillars of progress at once alien and familiar.
There’s some formula at work here: From the first image of a charcoal monolith reaching deep into a cloudy sky, “Last and First Men” evokes the spirit of Stanley Kubrick and “2001,” while the use of black-and-white photography to evoke otherworldly themes tips its hat to Bela Tarr. However, “Last and First Men” also revisits the psychedelic meditations on civilization’s progress in Godfrey Reggio’s trippy “Koyaanisqatsi” and its sequels, while utilizing contemporary visuals to construct an elaborate future mythology akin to Chris Marker’s “La Jetee.” Yet Jóhannsson’s approach builds on these precedents with its own precise narrative trajectory.
“Last and First Men” doesn’t adhere to a story in the most traditional sense, but once the premise settles in, it guides the viewer through several haunting chapters. In Jóhannsson’s telling, humanity has obtained utopia and immortality, but bears little resemblance to its roots. Swinton’s voiceover includes intricate details about the bizarre simian features of this future race, the magnifying lenses affixed to their foreheads, and a ritual that involves a 20-year pregnancy followed by infancy that lasts a century. Technology has progressed to inconceivable extremes, including the insights of of telepathy and deep-space travel, which Swinton explains in measured tones that call to mind the dispassionate deity Dr. Manhattan of “Watchmen” fame. When Swinton describes the species’ subjectivity as “huge fluctuations of joy and woe,” it’s an apt summary of the movie’s undulating mood, as Jóhannsson casts an absorbing spell.
All along, the composer guides the images along with his low, rumbling score, as it drifts through windy tangents and arrives at unexpected orchestral swells. “Last and First Men” manages to envelop viewers in its world before injecting it with higher purpose, as the species come around to issuing a plea to their ancestors that’s both metaphorical and riddled with mystery. Outdoing no less than “Arrival” in its narrative finesse, “Last and First Men” similarly revolves around bringing an alien understanding of the world into our own.
Some may feel that Jóhannsson’s dry assemblage deprives these images of their original significance. At the same time, one could argue that the utopia described here extends from the far-reaching goals of the Tito era, and registers as a somber recognition of their impossibility. Swinton, whose mechanical intonations develop an emotional tenor as they move along, announces that the beings have found “a triumphant love of our fate.” Humanity should be so lucky.
Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s crisp visuals ensure these lifeless sets come to life, as glacial camerawork hovers around the structures to enact a ghostlike sense of awe. Jóhannsson counteracts the colorless palette with sudden bursts of color, including a green dot that captures the rhythms of Swinton’s voice like a beacon from a distant time. When she refers to her kind as “the wreckage of our former selves,” you believe it.
As “Last and First Men” builds to its climax, it takes on a wistful quality; it’s simultaneously an environmental plea and one that makes peace with the possibility that we’re already doomed. It’s all so entrancing that one can’t help but experience overwhelming sadness in witnessing the last work from an artist so in control of his mission. By that same token, the posthumous nature of “Last and First Men” injects its message with additional poignance: The movie is a testament to the strength of wisdom more powerful than death itself.
“Last and First Men” premiered in the special gala section of the Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.