The first and sadly only film from acclaimed Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (best known for his work with Denis Villeneuve) is a strange, foreboding dissection of the idea of utopia. Adapted from the 1930 "future history" science-fiction novel of the same name from Olaf Stapledon, Jóhannsson takes a peculiar and abstract approach to turning prose into image.
It feels like a dark twist on a natural history documentary, only with no nature left to behold.
Forgoing physical performances entirely, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s impressive, 16mm, black-and-white imagery of real brutalist monuments in former Yugoslavia is the film’s driving force. The only human anchor to this visual poem is the disembodied voice of Tilda Swinton, an unnamed narrator directly addressing the viewer as she retells the history — triumphs as well as failures — of this future Earth.
Swinton is, of course, an excellent choice for an omniscient future human describing unseen evolutions in man’s course, such as telepathic communication replacing vocal speech. But for all these reports, we are offered no traces of humanity other than the monuments that litter these barren landscapes, and the fluctuations of an oscilloscope as Swinton’s voice communicates what happened. It’s all impressively eerie, as grainy black-and-white imagery combines with haunting choral chants from Jóhannsson’s own score, complimenting the gloomy and foreboding narration.
The slow, deliberate camerawork feels at once natural and experimental, filled with a kind of meditative calmness, despite the tale of humanity’s end; it feels like a dark twist on a natural history documentary, only with no nature left to behold, as the elegiac voiceover reflects on the entropy and eventual extinction of mankind. Its unique visual sense may test the patience though, the details of the narrative, as well as its thematic potential, having been exhausted quite some time before the film reaches its conclusion. Nevertheless, Last And First Men is a mostly mesmeric and even supremely moving experience.