Last and First Men review: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s apocalyptic dispatch from the future

Tilda Swinton narrates the Icelandic composer’s final work, a meditative science-fiction experiment, which transmutes 20th-century brutalism into evidence of Earth’s eventual demise.

4 August 2020

By Roger Luckhurst

Last and First Men (2017)
Sight and Sound

This 70-minute experimental film brings together a daunting conjuncture of elements. It is a Jóhann Jóhannsson film, conceived, shot (with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) and scored by the Icelandic composer, but left incomplete at his death from an accidental overdose in 2018. Jóhannson is principally known for his minimalist film scores, which process orchestral sound through tape loops and electronic glitches, and in particular for his soundtrack for Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), where the music is integral to creating the strange elegiac tone of that melancholic encounter with aliens bearing unusual gifts.

Last and First Men is a non-narrative meditation in the same mood, but is closer to Jóhannsson’s concept albums, which combined the holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener with science-fictional bleeps and gurgles typical of the synth gloomsters of the late 70s New Wave. Given this post-apocalyptic mood, it is inevitably hard to avoid the trap of bending the film around the knowledge of Jóhannsson’s early death, turning its reflections on end times into a last testament.

The voiceover narration, delivered with icy precision by Tilda Swinton, is taken from the final chapters of the eccentric exercise in future history by the philosopher Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) that gives the film its title. These chapters are addressed to 20th-century man from the last generation of humanity in the far future as they await destruction with the heat death of the sun. Stapledon’s novel, first published in 1930, was read by an unlikely array of people at the time, from Winston Churchill to Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf. Stapledon had a long argument with H. G. Wells all through the 1930s as the prospects for Europe darkened, but he was also read by a young Arthur C. Clarke, who was inspired by the audacious span of this future vision. That wonder remains intact in Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Swinton’s remote diction is combined with slow, crawling tracking shots over the surfaces of giant concrete structures that we are asked to parse as traces of abandoned future cultures. They are in fact the neglected giant memorials – called ‘spomeniks’ – that Tito, the leader of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, built in their thousands all over the federation between the 1950s and 1980s. Refusing the Stalinist language of socialist realism, Tito instead encouraged modernist abstraction and brutalist forms to memorialise local victories in the National Liberation War against Nazi Germany and its occupying forces.

These weird utopian monuments have become familiar through the sort of kitsch retro-futurism of coffee-table photo-books such as Soviet Bus Stops (published in 2015) or the more serious catalogues of vanishing and maliciously erased postwar Brutalist architecture, such as Owen Hopkins’s Lost Futures (2017). Jóhannsson has said that he was inspired by the Dutch photographer Jan Kempenaers’s book Spomeniks (2010), which brought him the vision of his film complete. In 2017, Jóhannsson travelled through the former Yugoslavia with Grøvlen and a 16mm camera, and shot those monuments that had not been blown up during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

The conjunction of voiceover and image makes for a powerful addition to Jóhannsson’s abiding interest in evoking lost utopias through music. Jóhannsson’s generation was, after all, situated in the wake of failed political programmes that left even the most ardent optimists thinking only about the minimal chances of fugitive slivers of utopia amid the ruins of a murderous century.

I think the film avoids the ironic shrug of post-communist wonderment at the now entirely alien ideas of collective purpose and unity based on an internationalism beyond the ethnic nationalism that dominates contemporary politics. Some viewers may be concerned that Jóhannsson’s tactic of recontextualising the images with Stapledon’s text risks burying some of the specific histories of the monuments he films. The viewer has no way of knowing, for instance, that the gigantic, elegant structure of concrete open petals, rising 24 metres into the sky, that is one of the film’s central images is in fact the memorial at Jasenovac in Croatia. This was a concentration camp where enemies of the fascist Axis powers were murdered in their tens of thousands. At the centre of the monument is a crypt that houses the remains of those victims.

Has Jóhannsson erased this history in his remotivation of the image? The strategy of recontextualising images of the present as an alienated future has been at the core of experimental science-fiction films since Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) or Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and the tradition was continued in Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder (2005). But in the instance of Last and First Men, it is worth knowing that however many billions of years forward Stapledon projects, the author kept returning to the horrors of the First World War – which was kickstarted, of course, in Sarajevo. Stapledon was also haunted throughout the 1930s by the prospect of renewed global war: hence his push into the future.

The terrain of Tito’s monuments to the victory over fascism actually speaks perfectly to Stapledon’s fragile hopes and fears of the path to species extinction. Jóhannsson’s film escapes the risk of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) – the end of the world as the revenge of the depressed artist – and achieves a higher level. Formally austere, the film is an absorbing contribution to experimental science-fiction film.