Review: “Last and First Men” #EdFilmFestAtHome

Year: 2020
Runtime: 70 minutes
Director: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Writer: Original novel by Olaf Stapledon
Stars: Tilda Swinton

By Caz Armstrong

This is a meditative blending of monstrous sculptures, a beautiful score and an ethereal science fiction story. Viewers need to let themselves be absorbed and to let their imagination do a lot of work. But if you take a deep calming breath, unplug the phone and unlock that imagination you will be rewarded by something other-worldly, lamenting and inspiring.

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This is the only feature film directed by the late Academy Award-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (“The Theory of Everything”, “Sicario”). “Last and First Men” was adapted from the cult science fiction novel by Olaf Stapledon. It is an audio-visual sensory chamber reflecting on society, destruction and imminent doom.

The visuals consist of a series of sculptures and shapes, architecture and plant life. It’s all shown in black and white grainy footage suggesting something earthy and old.

“Like a bedtime story, your mind will take you away to another place that nobody but you can see.”

The textures and shapes are like a photography essay. Some are bold and stark, some misty and ethereal. Some follow the natural and random shapes of nature while others are enormous flat structures stretching into the sky. Curves and shadows are reframed as the camera slowly pans and zooms, constantly making the images new.

These images alone are really worth watching, especially if you have even a passing interest in photography, sculpture or architecture. They are an inspiration to pick up a camera and examine the light, shapes and texture around us.

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The music is a lamenting and swelling score by director and composer Jóhannsson. Again, this by itself would be worth carefully listening to as it rises and falls through a journey of inspiration, other worlds, and loss.

As we are absorbed in the music and images we hear the story of the “last men”, a message from billions of years in the future narrated by Tilda Swinton. Calmly yet tensely in that way only Swinton can, we hear about the lifecycles, technology and society of this future race of humans. We hear how they learned of their fate, and how they dealt with it with a resigned sadness.

“This film is quite an experience and one that needs to be given full attention.”

We are given nothing to directly illustrate the words we hear apart from the simple visuals of structure and form. Harsh lines, soft mist, bold shape and freeform nature all make suggestions that our imaginations are left to interpret.

Like a bedtime story, your mind will take you away to another place that nobody but you can see.

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This film is quite an experience and one that needs to be given full attention. It wraps you up in the music and lays the images in front of your eyes for you to explore and be moved by. The story reflects our own brink on the edge of climate destruction but also the power of collaboration.

Prepare to be immersed and experience something quite special.

4.5 stars

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