Renowned film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson — you’ll remember his Oscar-nominated score for Sicario, which thrummed like a revved-up heartbeat — makes a uniquely astonishing feature directorial debut with Last and First Men. Based on the hugely influential 1930 science fiction novel of the same name by British philosopher Olaf Stapledon, this is a cinematic tone poem contemplating the biggest, headiest issues that humanity ever confronts: evolution and extinction; the depths of time and the unfathomable expanse of the universe; the meaning of life, and what meaning we give to it. Why we finding meaning — and ensuring a future for our children and our children’s children — is all that we have.
Not a traditional narrative, this is more akin to an illustrated audiobook: speaking to us is the disembodied voice of Tilda Swinton (Avengers: Endgame), as a person of the 18th human species billions of years in the future. We are of the first human species; she is of the last. Her people see an inescapable calamity approaching, and they wish to impart upon us… what? Not a warning, per se, but an appreciation of the immense story of humanity she briefly lays out before us, in her past but our future. There will be no great utopias, we are told, but if we’re lucky as individuals, we might live through one of the momentary flowerings of civilization amidst the “sluggish river” of human history.
By contrast, however, the serene yet startling black-and-white cinematography — by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who also recently shot the domestic nightmare that is Shirley — is devoid of people, and instead considers lonely, seemingly abandoned monuments to human effort. The mournful score — written by Jóhannsson, of course — underscores the ominous alarm that screams through Stapledon’s near-century-old words, probably unwittingly on the author’s behalf but clearly of great concern to Jóhannsson: that calamity is approaching for us, too, and we had better start it taking seriously if we’d like to escape the worst of it. (That’s global warming and the related degradation of our physical environment — all the damn plastic in the oceans! — for those who cannot yet see disaster barreling toward us, or don’t want to.)
Mesmerizing and haunting, this is an extraordinary debut. Alas, it will be Jóhannsson’s only film: he died in 2018. This would seem to lend an extra layer of ironic urgency of what he is saying here, that as thinking, self-aware creatures, being cognizant of our own individual mortality is not enough. We must also confront the reality that our awesome ability to alter the planet could be the death of our civilization, if not our species itself.
viewed as part of Ed Film Fest at Home, the digital-only 2020 Edinburgh International Film Festival