Last and First Men is a artful, melancholy work that suggests the heights Jóhannsson might have reached, even as the final product can feel more like a rough draft.
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away in 2018 at the age of 48, leaving behind an incredible repertoire of music and two Oscar nominations (for Sicario and The Theory of Everything). Just prior to his death, Jóhannsson directed his first feature film — Last and First Men, a haunting, abstract meditation on the state of the planet, that made its debut at the Manchester International Festival in 2017. Narrated by Tilda Swinton and composed of often static black-and-white images, Last and First Men tells the story of a group of future humans who attempt to communicate with the past in a bid to save the planet from future environmental disaster. For the duration of the film’s scant 70-minute runtime, we see no actual humans, and the story is related only through Swinton’s hypnotic narration. Jóhannsson’s camera instead lingers on barren landscapes and unusual architecture, constructing a sense of impending doom — of a world transformed and wiped clean by some unknown apocalypse.
The effect is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, the almost imperceptible movements of Jóhannsson’s camera creating the illusion that we are watching a collage of photographs. It’s all quite beautiful and indeed visually striking, but one can’t help but feel that what’s put to screen is essentially a music video for one of Jóhannsson’s compositions. There’s no denying that his music has a sublime, otherworldly quality, and Last and First Men deftly draws us into the aural world he creates while manifesting a visual reality, but there’s also a rambling quality to the production that often blunts its impact. Clearly, the composer-director had a keen eye for creating indelible atmosphere, not only through his music but proven here in his images as well, and it’s tantalizing to imagine what could have been had his talents not been prematurely cut down in 2018. But in Last and First Men, there’s often a disconnect between the images and the narration, a kind of self-conscious artfulness that keeps it from next-level praise, as the dialogue occasionally struggles to bridge the gap between philosophical ruminations and maitenance of narrative. It’s a blessing for fans of the composer that his final artistic statement has at long last arrived in theaters, but while the film certainly feels as if one of his albums come to life on screen, it ultimately feels more like an enigmatic tease, a tantalizing “what if” from a great talent who had still yet to reach his full potential.