By Jake Watt
11th October 2020

When I first read Olaf Stapledon's science fiction classic 'Last and First Men', I was blown away by the ideas presented in a book that was published in 1930. While some of the science certainly doesn't hold up (although I did like the fliers and the guys with the big ears), the mind experiment that Stapledon goes through to present the complete future history of mankind is trippy and, at times, incredibly prescient.

I think it's an amazing novel. Then again, I love stories that span vast amounts of time. Stapledon adopts vast historical perspectives to show the entire history of our humanity and its greatly altered descendants and of the whole history of intelligent life in the galaxy. However, it's also pretty dry speculative fiction and often reads like a textbook. It's a tough piece of writing to adapt to film, but this is what Jóhann Jóhannsson (the much-celebrated Icelandic composer of such films as 'Sicario', 'Arrival' and 'Mandy') chose for his debut as a director before he sadly passed away at the age of 48.


Shooting on 16mm black and white film, Jóhannsson uses cinematographer's Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's compositions of the otherworldly sculptures and structures that can be found across the former Yugoslavia landscape as the visual element of his exhibition piece. These aesthetically-soothing geometric artifacts are the only thing we see, with a variety of shots circling in, tracking close and getting lost in the shapes of the buildings and statues.

Layered over the imagery is narration by Tilda Swinton, a survivor of an advanced species who is beaming the history of the 18 distinct species of humans from some two billion years into the future. It's something that you could have imagined David Bowie pulling off if 'Last and First Men' had been filmed five years ago (his final album, 'Blackstar', held out the universal promise of the endless possibilities that can be found in vast emptiness of space).

The third element of the film is Jóhannsson's music, composed alongside Yair Elazar Glotman. Deep, ominous choirs mixed with booming bass and high-pitched strings colour this tale as one of looming doom and destruction, but also one filled with touches of hope and an optimism that destiny might be changed. It is a great pity that we'll never hear a piece of music again from a composer who was capable of stirring an incredible sense of empathy, atmosphere, and mood through their work.

Layered over the imagery is narration by Tilda Swinton, it's something that you could have imagined David Bowie pulling off if 'Last and First Men' had been filmed five years ago.

The closest cinematic reference point for Jóhannsson's film is Chris Marker's 'La Jetée' (1963), a post-apocalyptic science fiction short told through an assemblage of gorgeous black and white stills, which shows a devastated Paris in the aftermath of World War III, the few survivors scurrying underground due to radiation levels on the surface. In this film, a man is chosen to embark on an experimental time travel mission to find a solution to humanity's dire situation, but temporal folds prove to be tricky.

Like Marker's 'La Jetée', Jóhannsson combines visuals, narration and music together to create a massive sense of scale, and conveys a tragic view of life worked out across aeons.

'Last and First Men' is definitely not for everyone. A lot of people will view it as an aimless art flick that will test their patience. Personally, I think it's the kind of film that is perfect for a marijuana movie night (see: 'Here Comes Hell' for further reference). If you're in the right mood, it's a science fiction film that provides the framework for your imagination to run wild. In a genre often dominated by bombastic epics like 'Interstellar' and 'Ad Astra', that kind of filmmaking is increasingly rare.

Looking for more Brisbane International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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