King skrifar meðal annars:
There are few shots in the pantheon of cinema as iconic as that of the Monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s a haunting image that, combined with its shrill score—a whirlwind of strings and wails, tearing away at your very soul—breaks you into vulnerability. In the Monolith lies the universe: To look at it is to witness both the swathing cosmos and the birth of humankind. It serves as the manifest muse for “Last And First Men,” a meditative and altogether awe-inspiring visual poem directed and scored by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
The film is adapted from Olaf Stapledon’s groundbreaking 1930 novel “Last And First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future,” of which Jóhannsson’s script follows quite literally to the line. The film’s narrative is constructed of passages from Stapledon’s text, narrated by Tilda Swinton, who takes on the role of a “last man,” calling out to humanity from two million years into the future. Swinton’s words fall trippingly. You’re slowly lulled into her voice, which beckons us to “listen patiently.” The provocation is ghostly: Swinton’s words echo from the edge of the empty universe.
This overall sense of the Kubrick-ian is clear, but this is not to say that Jóhannsson’s film is derivative. Quite the opposite: “Last And First Men” is a uniquely abstract work that makes a point to defy stringent ring-fencing. The film is composed of gorgeously textural black and white 16mm and Super 8 footage shot by Jóhannsson. His subjects are the brutalist relics of Yugoslavian architecture and sculpture. Some seem to have faces, taking on a sense of the anthropomorphic. These are our concrete protagonists—the eponymous ‘last men.’
That is to say, as any successful art film should, that the film beckons spectatorship and interpretation. It may be verbatim to Stapledon’s text, but it’s certainly not beholden to it. By around the halfway point, Swinton’s line fades into the background–we’re wrapped up by Jóhannsson’s incredible sonic manipulations. His epic, eerie soundscape is similar to that of his 2016 work “Arrival,” carrying juxtaposed senses of hope and doom. We’re left to float in ethereal moments, captivated by Jóhannsson’s introspective meditations on the very existence of man. He reminds us that everything has an expiry date, including whole species.
That this is Jóhannsson’s solemn debut, released two years after his untimely death, is unavoidable to recognize. If nothing else, the ethereal sensibility of “Last And First Men” serves to remind us of this at every juncture. This will be Jóhannsson’s only film, and he is not here to see it released. But does that really matter, when everything is finite? As “Last And First Men” hauntingly considers, vis-a-vis the extinction of an imagined race, existence—of art, of sentient beings, of the cosmos—always ends. Even for the ‘last men’ of Stapledon’s narrative, who have successfully defeated natural death, and can now only die from suicide, murder—or, as it comes to be seen, a mass extinction event.
Of course, Jóhannsson’s is far from the first filmmaker to philosophize on the cruel nature of humanity’s ephemerality. Nor is he the first composer to be inspired by the eventual, unavoidable end of our species. But his approach, while haunting and confrontational, is uniquely calming. The effect is as if Jóhannsson himself is reaching from the beyond and beckoning us into acceptance. Perhaps it’s coincidental that his only film has such existential reverence—would “Last And First Men” still feel so evocative if Jóhannsson was alive?—yet, coincidence or not, pathos is drawn.
Some might argue that the film’s poetic sensibility would befit a gallery wall moreso than the screen of an arthouse. I’d disagree: A dark room, atmospheric sound, and a big screen are entirely vital. This experience is one of rare, absolute immersion. I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen, nor could I disconnect from Jóhannsson’s thesis. It’s a tragedy that this will be Jóhannsson’s only directorial work, being so illustrative of a phenomenal artist. Nevertheless—what a final word this is.