Last and First Men (2020) *** Bfi On Demand

June 26th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor
Dir: Johann Johannsson | Wri: Olaf Stapledon | Sci-fi Iceland, 70′
Narrated by Tilda Swinton and shot in stunning 16mm black and white by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Silver Bear winner for Rams),  Last and First Men is the cinematic sole feature directed by the late Johann Johannsson who composed striking soundscapes for films such as Sicario, Mandy, Arrival and The Theory of Everything. The film transports us into a surreal world of phantasmagorical monuments where a future race of humans finds themselves on the verge of extinction. Overlaid by the dulcet tones of Tilda Swinton telling a tale of crumbling future civilisations based on the classic 1930 sci-fi work by British writer Olaf Stapledon, the spectral presence of an entity attempting to communicate with us slowly emerges.
Icelandic composer/director/writer Johan Johannsson (1969-2018) had been working on this eerie, apocalyptic and at times enigmatic passion project for almost a decade. The brilliant  16 mm black-and-white visuals were shot in former Yugoslavia and feature old bunkers and war-glorifying monuments. They are as impressive as Johannsson’s score, which was added separately at The Barbican in 2018.

In Stapledon’s cult novel, the First Men are humans. In the twenty-first century, a war breaks out in Europe, leaving the USA and China as super-powers. In the 24th century, the USA and China go to war, culminating in the First World State. Four millenniae later, humans have depleted the planet of fossil fuel, and civilisation as we know it collapses. Later, a riot occurs at a mine resulting in a subterranean explosion, making earth uninhabitable for millions of years. Thirty-five humans at the North-Pole survive, they later split with another species, the sub-humans. The Last Men are the 18th Men, the most advanced model of humankind, mainly consisting of philosophers and artists with very liberal sexual morals. “Superficially we seem to be not one species but many”. Sub-genders exist, variants of the basic male and female patterns. The units, the equivalent of families, have the ability to act as a group mind. They do not die naturally anymore, only by accident, suicide or being killed. In spite of this all, they practice ritual cannibalism. After a supernova infects the Sun, making it expand and consume the entire solar system, Mankind cannot find a way to escape. This last species of men create a virus to spread life to other planets and cause the evolution of a new species in the galaxy. The first and last Men communicate, the latter trying to warn their predecessors and teach them survival tactics.

Johannsson was a prolific composer and clearly a decent filmmaker. Producer Thor Sigurdjonson has completed the work Johansson left behind, and the result is in many ways, a unique and passionate eulogy. AS

On demand on BFI Player on 30 July 2020 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2020

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