The last and first movie in Jóhann Jóhannsson career proves the composer’s exquisite taste for the disturbing and atmospheric side of cinema. If there’s one word to describe Last and First Men (2020), it’s monumental.
It’s only right to associate the name Jóhann Jóhannsson with the most unsettling scores of Hollywood blockbusters. Like Hans Zimmer to Christopher Nolan, the Icelandic musician became essential to the success of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016), and – to a lesser extent – Prisoners (2013). The duo proved to be versatile, and ready to explore various genres and moods. Frankly, Arrival (2016) was among the top inspirations for Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men (2020).
Little did we know about Jóhannsson’s directorial ambitions though. The untimely death of the composer concluded a life full of phenomenal scores and just one auteur image that might have heralded the rise of a prominent filmmaker.
The plot of Last and First Men (2020)
Last and First Men (2020) is a loose adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s novel of the same title. In an opening scene of the film, the camera slowly moves beneath a gargantuan building revealing its unique form. Choral and gentle vocalizing flows from the speakers. In an instant, Jóhann Jóhannsson marks his territory with a haunting, almost inhuman score that creeps under your skin.
Through voice-over, we learn the intricacies of the people of the future. From their physical appearance to their customs, a feminine voice describes the world and how it was brought to its imminent bane. The images, which accompany the story, depict this civilization’s legacy – a world full of stranded monuments and unprecedented constructs.
Jóhannsson’s last score is filled with unease and poetry
Music, as should have been expected from a composer-turned-filmmaker, quickly rises to be the pillar of the film. Despite the narration of Tilda Swinton, who describes the life of humans millions of years into the future, Jóhannsson’s primary voice as a director is his score. It’s both poignant, and dramatic, and uncanny, but very much in the spirit of his previous works too. There’s almost a story on its own told there, told through wallowing violins and synthesized voices.
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, the DP of Last and First Men (2020), devised a clever way to epitomize these sounds. Instead of filming customized sets, Grøvlen shot post-Yugoslavian Spomenik monuments. With no rush, the camera examines the unique Soviet constructions, revealing shapes, lines, and architectural solutions from the future. Many of these frames operate without the laws of physics, and because of that, these constructs seem extraterrestrial.
In a sense, the use of Spomeniks – physical remnants of the anti-fascist moods carved in stone and concrete – does feel poetic. They’re the only leftovers of the lost thought of communism, as they’re the sole proof of the existence of the last men from Stapledon’s story. Seeing the legacy of Spomeniks as a metaphor also brings to mind the Soviet sci-fi classics – such as Solaris (1972) – which certainly inspired the Icelandic composer tonally and visually.
Blending the black-and-white cinematography with such a disquieting score makes up for a fully immersive experience.
Tilda Swinton’s voice fits the cold message from the future
Probably the most ambiguous part of Last and First Men (2020) is the narration.
Tilda Swinton could easily compete with sir David Attenborough in a race of most calming, comforting voices. But understanding an image so grand and complex is often hard to grasp, and Swinton’s cold, emotionless narration skews towards National Geographic too often. Especially knowing that her transmission is a desperate call for the help of a dying civilization, that smooth, scientific language might come as a little distracting.
In a way, Last and First Men (2020) feels like a testament to the whole career of the Icelandic artist. We lost a great, sensitive artist who could spread his wings and become a pillar of existential sci-fi school. Still, fans of Jóhann Jóhannsson will forever cherish this movie for it encapsulates everything we loved about the composer – the unpredictable nature of his music, and how it was filled with unease and drama that’s just inimitable.
Last and First Men (2020)
Cultural Hater Reverse Grade: 1/10
Director: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Writer: Olaf Stapledon (novel by), José Enrique Macián, Jóhann Jóhannsson
Starring: Tilda Swinton
- Stalker (1979)
- Arrival (2016)
- Solaris (1972)
- Samsara (2011)