Last and First Men review – a mildly fascinating alien object

The late film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's one and only directorial effort is a strange and bewildering video essay, narrated by Tilda Swinton

When the tragic news came in 2018 that Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson had passed away at the age of just 48, there was great sadness – a sense that the world had been deprived of decades of magnificent compositions he almost certainly would have written. Jóhannsson's singular talent as a composer was already confirmed by his strange and oddly cerebral scores for movies like Sicario, Arrival, and Mandy, all of which helped to define the mood of those films. But as with the best maestros, his music seemed to take on a life of its own away from the pictures.

Alongside the scores he left behind, there is also this last gift, too: a bewildering, alien object that is something like a cross between a visual poem and a video essay. Last and First Men is based on a short story by sci-fi author William Olaf Stapledon, unfolding here as a meditation on the future of mankind, as though narrated from billions of years down the line, a series of 16mm black-and-white shots held together by an otherworldly musical score.

Tilda Swinton narrates the film with an intended, unaffected delivery, as though she has attained a higher consciousness. We see landscapes filled with statues and constructs that look like they might have come from the future (in fact, they're real monuments spread throughout the former Yugoslavia, built to commemorate the region's efforts against the rise of fascism). Each one emanates – hums, even – with the same kind of eerie and prophetic power that the iconic Monolith did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At times it's hard to escape the feeling that you're watching something you'd see playing on the wall of an art gallery, yet it does inspire a good amount of fascination – especially as Jóhannsson's music, created alongside sound artist and composer Yair Elazar Glotman, achieves a synchronisation with the images that feels preordained. There's a sense, now and again, that the piece is somewhat extended at 70 minutes, though equally long periods of time seem to pass quickly as you are drawn under its strangely calming but unsettling spell. Certainly it reaffirms Jóhannsson's gift with music, but Last and First Men also suggests he had potential as a great director of science-fiction cinema, too.

Last and First Men is now streaming on BFI Player.

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