Last and First Men (2020) — Movie Review
I write reviews based on four categories: Coherence, Intensity of Effect, Complexity, and Originality, each based on a score of 1 to 5. The total score is averaged out of these parts.
Last and First Men is a 2020 science fiction film directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson and starring Tilda Swinton. This is a movie that is hard to come by, and with its style and runtime of one hour and ten minutes, I could see some skepticism in its value as something to be watched explicitly, rather than having it overheard at some museum as an installation. I think for anyone who owns a projector and some premium speakers, Last and First Men is a pretty astounding piece to add to one’s collection. Hopefully a review will convince you of why.
What you’re seeing in these still images of Last and First Men is not far from the experience in total. The premise is that the viewer is being contacted by a being, voiced by Tilda Swinton, from eons into the future, as she they relate to us the deep history of our species from our time forward, to a cataclysmic point that requires our attention. As Swinton speaks, abstract shapes and natural landscapes are displayed monochromatically, and with various pans and zooming movements slow enough that we are reminded perhaps of films by Tarkovsky. Jóhann Jóhannsson not only directed the film, but also worked to compose music for the experience, and once you hear the music, it is clear that this is where the heart of the experience lies. The music, given enough breadth with hardware like headphones or surround sound, and you are transported into what I can only describe as a rich languor. When all combined, Last and First Men can produce a sudden pensiveness that will last throughout the day, yet is so austere in its design that it can be returned to for that sensation again and again without annoyance. Swinton is providing a voiceover of a story adapted from Olaf Stapledon by one of his books of the same name, and by the end, it made me want to read other books by him, like Star Maker published in 1937. How does this all fit into coherence? Well, there are occasions where undoubtedly the visual spectacle works alongside the story, and is emanating from a rich soundscape, and all aligns into a compelling experience. But this is not always the case, and certain abstracted statues and cinematography do not necessarily line up. If you pay close enough attention, as the camera moves throughout these structures, you may see designs appear and disappear though it is unknown whether these moments are intentional or not. I think the simplest answer here is the best: the visual images of the film, the sound, and the story, were each independently constructed, and then built together afterward. This is not abnormal in the medium of film, but it feels obvious with Last and First Men. As far as pacing and structural choices, the film risks tedium, and so often will offer methods for switching up the arc of the story by adding other elements to it. Even at 70 minutes long, this offers some much needed texture. Unfortunately, how this all works at a coherent level is uncertain, so a 2 out of 5 makes sense for coherence.
Intensity of Effect
For any lover of science fiction, Last and First Men is a must watch for its ability to totally surround you in the dire nature of its story. It is dripping with the kind of atmosphere and worldbuilding that is sought after by science fiction writers, but remains absent even after hundreds of pages. Whether due to its adaptation, or to its original writing, the film grabbed me immediately. Tilda Swinton is a particular actress I adore, having seen her in I am Love back in 2009 and from then on never witnessing a bad performance. Here, Swinton’s icy voice is exactly the right tone. Without her voice specifically, I am unsure if the film would have turned out to be as absorbing as it is. Throughout the film, we are beholden to certain truths about our species that seem equally inevitable but, with Swinton’s voice, unbearably tragic and immense. Humanity does not witness the unabated progress we hoped to achieve. In order to survive, humanity had to become something else entirely, had to transcend itself (or deform itself according to your perspective) in order to survive the indifferent decisions of the cosmos. And by the end, having sat there for 70 minutes, you feel as though you have gone with them too, these last men, and are just as bereft of meaning and a sense of community. For 70 minutes only, it is hard for me to imagine a more deep and arresting science fiction experience. A 5 out of 5 is certain.
As we have mentioned before, Last and First Men feels like a loose arrangement of several different features put together into something compelling, yes, but ultimately something very simple. There is a complexity that comes from the idiosyncratic choices of its director, one with a very stable, calm, and profound sense of vision. I feel that its role as a film will endure for many decades on due to the abstracted nature of its images, the monochromatic look, the film grain, and the minimalist style of its story. But these work in their best light only if a viewer is willing to commit to some of the narrative choices of the fiction in voiceover. Why is it that humanity did not experience progress without measure? Why is it that certain solutions revealed themselves only in the time periods that they did? Could these problems not have been prepared for far sooner? And as I have said before, the visual complexity arrives occasionally in moments I am not sure were intentional, but are a sort of confirmation bias from a viewer who is caught in deep attention with the image laid before them. The cerebral state of the film is not without its consequences, and as such I’m giving complexity at 2 out of 5.
I admit I have not seen a film quite like this. The closest thing I can think of is the storyline played out in cutscenes of a video game series known as Homeworld, which you may or may not know. In these cutscenes, we have a sort of b-roll footage of concept art, with voiceover that has the same register as Swinton’s voice over. But here, in film, for the entirety of its runtime, I have yet to see something quite like this. As I have mentioned before, I thought of Tarkovsky’s films as an easy point to for its long takes and still camera. Last and First Men is committed to a narrative without characters, without the hum of personalities and psychology. I have not seen the work of Philip Glass, but perusing through various shots shows me that he likes to vary his images between static and incredibly kinetic and dynamic shots. Last and First Men is committed to hardly wavering, save for those moments in the director’s score where editing choices and images serve to add that previously mentioned texture I brought up. I think if I was in a museum, and Last and First Men was arranged in the exhibit, I would watch it in total. It’s one of those pieces that makes you sit down and forget about what the rest of the exhibit was trying to express thematically. I don’t think it is fair to say that this is simply a visualizer for his music, because there IS something about the way the story is told that adds weight. I’m giving originality a 5 out of 5.
A 3.5 out of 5 hopefully will split prospective viewers into two categories. If you like and read science fiction, or if you enjoy its aesthetic, the choice is obvious. You should watch Last and First Men. If you do not, or if you find the idea of a deeply abstracted music piece with a script equally paired down, do not watch Last and First Men. Even at 70 minutes, you will find yourself restless and anxious. If you own a projector, a large screen, and a surround sound set up, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of this out there on blu ray. You won’t regret it.