REEL Review – Last and First Men (2020)

Director: Jóhann Jóhannsson | 1h 10mins | Sci-Fi

On the verge of extinction, humans from 2 billion years in the future send a message out into the unknown, using their heightened evolution to reach back in time to us.

“Listen patiently”, the opening line read by omnipotent narrator Tilda Swinton summarises Jóhann Jóhannsson’s directorial debut and – due to his sad untimely passing – his last film. Mostly known as a composer, he scored many of Denis Villeneuve’s films among many others, and co-composed Last and First Men with Yair Elazar Glotman, though lesser known still has worked in some superb music departments for features such as Joker (2019).

A motif throughout, “Listen patiently” tells you how you should watch and listen to the film – if you can even call it that. Jóhannsson’s debut feels more like an art installation than a feature film, as there are no characters besides Swinton’s anonymous narrator. The visuals are exclusively Spomenik, Yugoslavian monuments commemorating World War Two battle sites in the Balkan mountains, the absence of a physical character is not a point of contention ever addressed. The structures themselves are already abstract, so by further disassociating the brutalist concrete monuments Jóhannsson and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen create a strikingly beautiful but uneasy visual story. The 16mm film its shot on only emphasises this more, the black and white and grainy texture blur the lines between the documentary aspect and the sci-fi cry for help written on top.

Due to the artistic nature a better comparison would be to a video essay, as much of what the film has to say comes from the improvements the future made on society (with some very passive aggressions towards contemporary humanity) likely Jóhannsson’s personal politics seeping through as a modern commentary. However, it is based on a novel from 1930 created in a similar manner – informing the audience of how humans evolved and progressed till their final stage, the writer unknowingly channelling the voice of those they are describing – so it could be a mix of both artists voices.

Both the book and the film are very socially liberal in their politics, though not specifically stating it Last and First Men almost feels like a argument in favour of Communism.

The descriptions of how humans changed is fascinating in itself, discussing how they came together as one, creating a telepathic communication between them forgoing the need for vocal speech, all of which Swinton is delivering with a sharp cold tone in her voice. By the closing shots we realise this isn’t a cry for help, they aren’t asking for us to change the future but instead educating us on the times that will come, a melancholic message saying that it will end but there is still good to be hand in before.

As you might expect from a talent like Jóhann Jóhannsson the score is beautiful and melancholic, but equal parts eery and haunting as well. The structure of the narration is large sections of description leading to a firm point before a pause, in which the score reflects the rise in intensity and into the crescendo before softening, leading to the next section.

Both the book and the film are very socially liberal in their politics, though not specifically stating it Last and First Men almost feels like a argument in favour of Communism – for some it’ll be off putting, others may either be able to enjoy it because of or in spite of this, but visually it’s fascinating enough to grab attention for the majority of the runtime for most of it’s audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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