The Last and First Men: existential sci-fi film by Jóhann Jóhannsson

We find ourselves filled, in spite of everything, with a triumphant love of our fate.

Olaf Stapledon

The Last and First Men, a film based on the book by Olaf Stapledon, is the sort of brooding, grey on black meditation on human existence that plunges me into silence. The good silence of death and resurrection, rather than the drowning silence of depression.

The film is sparsely narrated by Tilda Swinton using passages from Stapledon’s book that both accentuate and give space as the camera lingers over images of abandoned, abstract war memorials from the former Yugoslav republic. Layered on top of that is a brooding, organic yet otherworldly soundtrack by Jóhannsson.

The film explores zones of decay and ruin where great tragedies have occurred—places charged with symbolism. We sense a spectral presence, an entity that is attempting to communicate with us.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

There’s not much overt story to the film. Set 2,000 million years in the future, a future species of human reaches back through time, ostensibly for our help, but it’s never clear to me what help they want. Instead, they tell of humanity’s failed attempt to escape destruction from an exploding star. There’s no hope, yet they are no without hope.

Last and First Men is an embodiment of “mono no aware,” a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence and the transience of things. The feeling throughout the film is both a gentle sadness about the individual (in this case humanity) as well as knowing this transience permeates all life.

The end, however you want to envision it, points right back at us. 

last and first men

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