Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2020: "Last and First Men"

Michael Hayward

Adapted from British author Olaf Stapledon's influential science fiction novel from 1930, Last and First Men is a debut (and, as the VIFF info page points out: a swan song) feature from the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who scored several of Denis Villeneuve's recent films, including Arrival (2016).

Stapledon's novel had unusual scope, projecting mankind's path from present day (the First Men), through the next 2 billion years, to the point when the Last Men (our far-future descendants, now living on the planet Neptune) are facing the ultimate end of their kind.

In Jóhannsson's adaption, a spokesperson from the Last Men (voiced by Tilda Swinton) attempts to communicate with us, their distant ancestors. A distant star has gone supernova, threatening the sun, and the Last Men are in the process of coming to terms with their eventual extinction. With mere thousands of years remaining, they wonder how to react to the certainty of their fate. Through their repeated attempts to communicate with us, the Last Men claim to be seeking our help—or perhaps they hope to advise us on how, by taking action now, we might somehow avoid their fate.

Cinematography is by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, whose brooding visuals are strikingly beautiful and enigmatic. The camera plays slowly across the surfaces of a series of mysterious brutalist structures, abstract sculptural shapes set amidst deserted landscapes, silhouetted against distant mountains, and framed against a monochromatic sky with scattered clouds. All is shown in shades of textured gray, and there appears to be no trace of life anywhere, apart from the lichen which pattern the weathered surfaces, and a few distant birds. What civilization has left these objects behind? Why were they built, and what do they mean? These structures are never explained, and we are left to speculate as to their origins, and the fate of those who created them. (Note: the sculptures shown in the film exist in our world as well as the world of Last and First Men. They are known as The Spomeniks, and their fascinating story—which has no connection to Olaf Stapledon or Jóhann Jóhannsson—is told here.)

Oddly, the Last Men, faced with their own extinction, appear to have reached a state of calm acceptance. In the lyrical words of their spokesperson: "The whole duration of humanity, its evolution and many successive species, is but a flash in the lifetime of the cosmos. [...] Great are the stars, and humankind is of no account to them. But humankind is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived, and a star kills."

The mournful and elegiac mood of Jóhannsson's Last and First Men, as well as the structure of the film itself (a sequence of essentially static shots in black and white; a disembodied narrator describing an apocalyptic future; an attempt by the future to communicate with the past) recalls Chris Marker's marvellous film La Jetée (1962). Last and First Men would be a perfect film to watch on a rainy night—or if you want to put the events of our own, more-than-slightly-apocalyptic present, into a broader context.

Last and First Men is available for streaming through the VIFF Connect app until October 7th. A trailer for the film can be viewed here. Visit the VIFF website for more information on VIFF 2020.



Kris Rothstein's Blog
Kris Rothstein

VIFF 2019: MODES 1

A collection of experimental short films encourages immersion in image and sound.
Geist news

Winners of the 15th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest!

Announcing the winners of the 15th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest!
Michael Hayward's Blog
Michael Hayward

VIFF 2019: "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom"

A young Bhutanese teacher, wrestling with his commitment to that career, is sent to the remote Himalayan village of Lunana, to fulfill the final year of his contract.