Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help.
Two frequently used themes within Science Fiction are Evolution and Future History. Within these, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men is a towering achievement, inspiring generations of science fiction writers with a scope that transcends even geologic time frames. I read it for the first time almost thirty years ago and it is not a light read; it requires patience and attention but it’s well worth the effort. Arthur C. Clarke said “No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination” and it echoes in his greatest works, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So I was intrigued when I discovered that Last and First Men had been made into a film by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It would seem to be unfilmable; the novel has few characters other than humankind itself and spans the time from the 1930s to the terminus of the solar system two billion years hence.
And it may be a film, but it isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. What it is, is a skillful melding of music, imagery, and narration.
The music is central as is to be expected, Jóhannsson was primarily a composer, known for the score to Arrival and other films. The score here is both haunting and melancholy. It supports the narration and underscores the imagery; many moments rely only on the music and the images, building the mood between sections of monologue.
The narration adopts the framework of the book. It is a monologue by one of the last men, a member of the eighteenth distinct species of humanity, as they contemplate the impending extinction of humankind. Tilda Swinton’s performance is understated, yet effective. The script seems to be portions of the book spliced together into a shorter but coherent form, mostly from the introduction and the later chapters about the last men. I haven’t checked this in detail, but the words themselves are Stapledon’s own with some occasional modernizing of the language.
Visually, this film is stark and beautiful. Bare trees and the sun failing to shine through overcast skies are recurring motifs that suggest desolation and the depths of winter. Mostly the film is in black and white with two exceptions. The bright green of an oscilloscope occasionally emphasizes the dialogue. The central image of the film is the sun glowing red through the clouds as the narrator explains that changes in the sun will bring about humanity’s demise. The inclusion of color in an otherwise monochrome film is jarring and effective. It’s a nice touch that the one note of red in the film visually reminds us of Hal from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001. That movie may not have existed without Stapledon’s influence and a thoughtful and subdued SF film like this one might not have existed without 2001.
The other important visual motif is the sculptures, spomeniks, monuments to the Second World War in the former Yugoslavia. These are essential to the tone of the film. They evoke the distant future by suggesting buildings with geometry that seems utterly alien and strange and yet they also manage to suggest that you’re traveling through the ruins of a long-extinct civilization.
Most of Stapledon’s novel doesn’t make it into this film, particularly the long sweep of history that covered so many species of humankind. But the tone is there; the emotional resonance is there and much of it, in 2020, seems prophetic.
Our prospect has now suddenly and completely changed, for astronomers have made a startling discovery, which assigns to man a speedy end. His existence has ever been precarious. At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly.
Like Stapledon’s novel, this movie is well worth watching but it too requires patience and attention. If you’re looking for a summer-blockbuster of a Sci-Fi movie, this is certainly not one of those. 2001: A Space Odyssey is famously slow but this film makes it look like Independence Day. It’s weighty and it’s philosophical and it showcases a classic. As his directorial debut, it’s also a fitting swan song for Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died in 2018 at the age of 48. Much like the film, it makes you wonder what more might have been accomplished.