Out of a grainy, slowly moving monochrome image of objects so abstract and removed from context that their form can be discerned but no function can be determined, a soft voice enters the ethereal solitude with a plea: “Listen patiently. We, who are the Last Men, earnestly desire to communicate with you.”
One of the first objects presented is a vast concrete torus set in alignment with another cylindrical aperture, possibly a portal or communicator, a window on the future, along with its power source or focusing apparatus? The voice tells us that it comes to us with difficulty from 2,000,000,000 terrestrial years in the future, that the end of humanity is imminent, and that it will occur swiftly.
Against the bleak landscape the story is told of the series of races of men of whom the eighteenth now speak, the Last Men, having fled from the eruption of the Sun when it collided with a cloud of interstellar gas to Neptune only to find that another catastrophe awaits as a nearby star approaches nova, the radiation expelled set to extinguish all life within its radius faster than it can flee.
Shot primarily in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 16mm film and focusing on sites such as the Monument to the Revolution or the “Stone Flower” Jasenovac monument, Last and First Men was the feature directorial debut of the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, adapted from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel by Jóhannsson and José Enrique Macián.
As would be expected of Jóhannsson, the soundscape is epic and oppressive as Tilda Swinton describes the existence of the Last Men and the long path which has led to their strange existence, driven by changes in the species and the environment, the eye seeking patterns in the abstract concrete configurations, the comfort of a face built of shadow or the familiarity of a horizon.
With rare glimpses of what might be high technology through the permeating mist – actually the Petrova Gora Monument in Karlovac County, Croatia, now largely derelict and topped by a mobile phone mast in recent years – there is loneliness and uncertainty even in a people whose telepathic communion allows them to share the entire past of their race as a personal memory, their history one of monotonous toil rather than the hoped for utopia.
Running to only seventy minutes, Last and First Men is abstract and experimental yet absorbing, and presenting only the final chapters of Stapledon’s work the atmosphere of fin de siècle embodied in the monuments is inescapable, many of them resembling titanic monolithic tombstones drenched in rain and raised to remember the dead of past atrocities.
With the viewer floating in a surreal void buoyed only by Swinton’s cryptic words, like Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka, much of what they make of the film will be what they bring to it, imparting meaning on the images from their own experience, but as “but a flash in the lifetime of the universe” it is a memorial both to Jóhannsson and all those whose lives are commemorated in the sometimes astonishing and alien constructions.