A curious little film played at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville last week; an adaptation of one of the forgotten classics from the golden age of science fiction, directed by the late composer for Arrival, Prisoners, and Sicario, and rewritten as an experimental essay film, screened twice to an audience of a few dozen. And I can’t begin to describe just how enrapturing an experience it was.
That said, I also know this is an experience few others would ever seek out. Arthouse films and experimental films have always been poorly regarded by the film-going public – a curiosity preserved mostly for film professors and heady artiste types, meant only to screen in the back rooms of metropolitan art museums and never seen again.
Regardless, The Last and First Men must be said to be some sort of masterpiece – a 70-minute essay narrated by Tilda Swinton and set against a collage of black and white films of barren fields, brutalist alien monoliths, and film grain. That might sound boring but with the composer of Arrival arranging it, it becomes an almost hypnotic experience where every image on screen echoes the haunting words of the story we’re told.
Jóhann Jóhannsson sadly passed away in 2018 at the age of 48 from an overdose, late into the production of this film. It appears he did live to see its initial screening at a film festival in 2017 but the finalized version – his posthumous directorial debut – didn’t start getting wider releases until 2020. The film’s narration is based on the book of the same name – The Last and First Men – by the highly influential early 20th-century science fiction novelist Olaf Stapleton, whose work influenced everyone in the genre from Arthur C. Clarke, to Bertrand Russell and C.S. Lewis.
The nominal story is told in the form of a message from the distant future, told by the representative of humanity dying billions of years in the future. This humanity is though is very different than ours. Following a world-destroying solar event, humanity seeded new strains of itself on Neptune while leaving the former human rice to die in an orgy of hedonism. The new human race, described as one of 18 different subspecies, is very different than modern man – divergent generically, engineered with telepathic powers, often seen with fur, exposed muscles, or translucent green skin.
The poetic images – all drawn from real-life war memorials in Eastern Europe – look alien against the barren landscapes and highlight the haunting differences humanity’s evolution has created for itself. Man is now an interstellar and progressive creature, fully formed in its mature atheism and having abandoned the superstitions of the past – but also wise enough to reject the Utopianism of humanity’s past. Mankind is nearly immortal, living nearly endless lifespans and only fully reaching maturity after thousands of years.
The brutalist images turn into a collage of semiotic meaning. Humanity brags about its abandoning of superstition while a cathedral-like structure looms over a flowing sky, symbolizing the mastery of the chaotic universe by scientific understanding. Stone figures stand against the white sterile sky as if contemplating their melancholy.
When a second massive cosmic event threatens the future humans, they’re left with the reality that there is effectively no way to save humanity a second time. This new mutated human race is left with just 30,000 years to watch as the universe smites them and leaves itself barren, indifferently crushing the beautiful spirit of life it created.
The images become more granulated as the film goes on, seemingly intensifying the image and implying just how tenuous the grasp this dying civilization has, before the film’s finale image depicts a pale green dot in a black void abruptly disappearing. The destruction of the sun itself is visualized in a beautiful and intense oscilloscope shot where the light of a red sun slowly overpowers the image until its brightness washes out everything into a bright white.
The benefit of these abstract images is that it gives the viewer space for their imagination to spiral. The narration and images evoke without explaining, suggesting ideas, and allowing the listener to contemplate what this abrasive and disturbing message from the future ought to mean to us, the titular first men that the narrator believes might be able to change history with this knowledge.
It is easy to read these contemplations with reactionary disdain. Anyone familiar with CS Lewis’s Abolition of Man or That Hideous Strength would likely see the alarm bells of Stapleton’s worldview screaming miles away – seeing a world where the elite abandons common humanity to die in order to create technocratic sterile heaven with no hope of meaning beyond momentary delusion. In this vision, mankind ceases to exist because “man’s conquest of nature turns out, in the moment of consummation, to be nature’s conquest of man.” We become reliant on the benevolence of the conditioners who define this new mankind, men who are equally weak to their vices and nature as we are. As the sailors used to say, “there be dragons”.
If anything is enrapturing about this vision though it is its innocence. There was a time when progressivism was a hopeful vision for the future of limitless possibility, where the flaws state of humanity was something beautiful and worth preserving merely because humanity itself was valuable. That has since been replaced by post-human progressivism, where no limit of human carnage is unnecessary to cull the herd and summon the utopia into existence.
Stapleton’s view is youthful, naive, and beautiful, and Jóhannsson visualizes it with a sense of visual and auditory grandeur that calls back to that earlier vision of science fiction where humanity’s efforts were beautiful purely because they’re human; where death and utter emptiness of the universe are themselves nature and where nihilism is replaced with dignified melancholy. It’s the opposite of the implicit nihilism at the hearts of adolescent angsty science fiction like Rick and Morty or Everything Everywhere All The Time, where the weight of the universe is crushing and painful. This is about human conquest in spite of the void.
The Last and First Man is an impressive multimedia project, the rare kind of film that is worthy of being described as an “experience” in terms that don’t sound pretentious. I’m glad I was one of a few dozen people in Nashville who took the time to see it!
The film will be screening again at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville on Tuesday, April 12th and I recommend checking it out! I also recommend Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on the works of Olaf Stapleton for further reading!