From the film’s production packaging:
“Two billion years in the future, humanity finds itself on the verge of extinction. Almost all that remains are lone, surreal monuments – the futuristic, solemn, Brutalist stone slabs erected during the communist era of the former Yugoslav republics, arrestingly photographed in luminous 16mm black-and-white …”
There’s a bit more, but – frankly – I think it both gives away too much of director Jóhann Jóhannsson’s central technique, so I decided it best to truncate that. Still, it isn’t that often when I find so very little to say about a project, and yet that’s the case with Last And First Men (2020), an impressive debut but equally hollow so far as this under-educated critic is concerned. Rather than present a story (there are pieces of a narrative pulled apparently from a cult SciFi novel written by Olay Stapledon), instead the filmmaker dabbles in imagery and sets it up against what serves as a brief yarn exploring the synchronized tenets of life, death, and extinction … or that’s what I’m going with.
Having read only a fair amount of vintage Science Fiction, I can assure you that – practically from the get-go – Last And First Men feels like SciFi and Fantasy of the bygone era. That isn’t necessarily a strength, however, as I’ve found most academics tend to dismiss the stuff from the earlier part of the 20th Century as being vastly too pulpy and/or simplistic to be recognized as ‘literature.’ Stapledon’s work – or what bits and pieces are represented in some of the slowest, most languid narration captured for the screen (no offense to actress Tilda Swinton, but a bit of vocal excitement might’ve pricked this thing up a bit) – essentially deals with the descendants of our world migrating to a distant world in order to avoid extinction … only to find out they’re about to burn out yet again. It’s a dour rumination but does make some useful observations here and there; and Jóhannsson has done an affable enough job pairing up the tale with some striking visuals.
Still, the problem I had with all of this was that it was just too long.
As I stated, Swinton’s delivery is one thing, but the entire film is stretched to its running length by what feels like endlessly and unnecessarily long sequences. While the architecture makes for some stunning views – and they definitely point out the irony of monoliths surviving long after their builders have all but vanished – I don’t need to stare at it for 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 seconds with the ponderous music weeping in the background. Had anyone suggested to crop this thing in half – though I could be wrong, I can’t imagine Swinton’s speeches and vignettes stretching longer than 15 minutes tops in here – then perhaps the end result would’ve resonated with me more strongly. It isn’t as if I disliked the premise or failed to miss the point; rather, it’s interminably pretentious for the casual viewer.
Imagine your favorite half-hour episode of, say, The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Now, imagine someone suggesting that the director pad that thirty-minutes with an additional forty-minutes of scenery and music just because it looks pretty and sounds grand. That’s where I’m at with this otherwise impressive flick: it needed to exercise some restraint … much like the universe kept going after mankind no matter how far they traveled from Earth.
Last And First Men (2020) was produced by Zik Zak Filmworks. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds included in this 71-minute film were largely very good: there’s a fair amount of camera trickery employed that doesn’t always appear to mean anything substantial (at least, it didn’t to me), and there are a few sound cuts that definitely give viewers watching closely something to think about. As for the special features? Well … a big miss … as there are none, save the theatrical trailer, which is basically the film’s opening 2 minutes, so … yeah. A big miss.
Alas … only Mildly Recommended.
In fact, let me go one step further: I suspect only folks who are true cinema aficionados and/or fans of experimental storytelling will have all that much use for Last And First Men. I say this because it’s really more of an idea than it is an authentic story – there’s only a loose structure here with a recognizable beginning and finish, but that’s about it. So if that’s your thing? Film nerds and academics, this bud’s for you! Well … it might be for you. Honestly, I would’ve enjoyed it a bit more had it clocked in at half its run time. Otherwise, it’s a ponderous meditation on existence more than it is anything else … only occasionally impactful and sparingly edifying.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Last And First Men (2020) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.