Facing extinction 2 billion years in the future, humankind has contacted us through the eons, seeking our help. A temporal lifeline to aid them in their (our?) last-ditch effort to thwart elimination from the cosmos. Beginning life as a 1930 sci-fi novel by influential author and philosopher William Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men has followed time’s more traditional arrow to arrive today as a film from the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Less a straight adaptation, Jóhannsson’s film is instead a contemplative film essay, a brooding and stark sensory experience.
“Listen patiently,” declares a voice. It’s the familiar, distinct elocution of Tilda Swinton, who guides us through the history of humanity’s evolution of conquering the stars. A history of fits and starts, it takes a few hundred thousand years before society rises out of petty conflicts and inconsequential stasis to find itself in a transcendent state of collective unity and pursuits of technological and spiritual altruism. As Swinton conveys their (our?) story, and forlorn strings and stark percussions toll an uncanny dirge, Jóhannsson and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen present us with alien monuments and structures amid a landscape reclaimed by nature. Boundless and bare, as Shelley would say. The structures are in fact Spomeniks, the tens of thousands of World War II memorials that fill the hillsides and fields of the former Yugoslavia, their futurist architectural style dotting horizons like abstract enigmas.
How appropriate for Jóhannsson to pair these Spomeniks – once a testimony to bravery and victory over fascism, now decaying and forgotten across a country haunted by millions of ghosts – with Stapledon’s history of the annihilation of our future selves. Last and Future Men is a haunting film of melancholic beauty, but hidden within are stubbornly persistent elements of hope. Just listen patiently.
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