Last and First Men
Review originally published in the February 2021 issue of Film Score Monthly
Based on the eponymous 1930 novel by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men is a science-fiction film produced and scored by Icelandic artist Jóhann Jóhannsson. Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the film presents a future mythology wherein humankind, having closed in on the peak of their evolutionary potential, is now on the brink of extinction. It is Jóhannsson’s first and only film as director, completed by Yair Elazar Glotman after the composer’s death in February 2018.
Jóhannsson took the Hollywood scene by storm, composing many of his better-known scores such as Prisoners, Arrival, Sicario, The Theory of Everything, and the posthumously released Mandy all within the last five years of his life. He collaborated frequently with director Denis Villeneauve, and it seems likely that were Jóhannsson still alive he would have been the lead composer on the upcoming Dune in place of Hans Zimmer. Yet, it was only the director-composer’s premature departure that allowed many of us to understand the full extent of the aesthetic impact borne in his work.
Jóhannsson’s approach to multimedia construction with Last and First Men proposed to revolutionize the industry. An approach wherein music dictates the formalist expectations of the film, akin to the likes of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi, scored by Philip Glass. Last and First Men premiered in 2017 with a live performance by the BBC Philharmonic, subsequently recorded by the Budapest Art Orchestra and a powerhouse of Icelandic and international musicians for its 2020 theatrical adaptation. Among this roster were Glotman and Jóhannsson's fellow studio collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir. The ensemble members, many of whom are themselves composers and recording artists, worked interchangeably as instrumentalists and vocalists during the recording sessions. An exclusive collective of vocals, strings, harmonium, saxophone, horn, cornet, percussion, and electronic tape loops that paint an austere world.
The musical expression of Last and First Men is inextricably linked with Jóhannsson’s audio-visual language. A barren landscape that features brutalist, non-euclidean monuments to a civilization that once was, where but for the lack of life you might think the world was perfect. Hollowed, cautious intervals carry the weight of humanity’s experience over the past two billion years. The music, its very colour, muted. A reflection of the 16mm black-and-white grain through which the film is shot. It is a ritualistic presentation of history, pondering the stillness – the incremental speed – of the earth’s erosion. The manipulated vocals and isolated strings tallying inestimable loss.
Liam Byrne weaves an acerbic diagram of humankind’s transformation on viol (“Physical Description Of The Last Human Beings”). An astonishingly subtle zoom reveals forest, mountainside, and vast skies accompanied by an unexpected outburst of anguish. Violin and alloyed voices wailing, screaming, tormented. Children crying in the wilderness. The painful transmutation of the earth itself (“Childhood / Land Of The Young”). Soprano Kate Macoboy’s serene apparatus, simultaneously celestial and temporal, induces an intense pathos that threatens to consume all it touches, cutoff with startingly spontaneity whereby we are met with an image of the red sun (“The Navigators”). Such is the nature of the music that it never fully embraces the primal furor of a crescendo, instead remaining at a calculated distance. A searching, evasive quality that is at once familiar and alien. The river of harmony is given a new dimension of meaning late in the film when Swinton delineates the “archaic practices of vocal symbolism” as the devolution of speech.
Last and First Men is a challenging experience. One that demands patience. Musically, it can be characterized as a tone poem. A sonic vision of Purgatory, ruminating on the helpless, fatalistic desperation of the present future and the decisions that led to our being there. It is, arguably, Jóhannsson’s most mature work. An intersection of music and media that encapsulates with remarkable adeptness the astral, spiritual, solitudinal, and otherwise contemplative themes of our day that have resurfaced periodically throughout his oeuvre. Jóhannsson’s multimedia performance seeks to conquer death. Perhaps prophetically so.