As this film finishes, one feels that no words can justly convey the unsettling beauty this unique piece of art possesses. Directed by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, it may have been considered unfinished at the time of his death but the editing work is seamless: you’d never guess it wasn’t considered a complete piece of art. Jóhann’s creative prowess obviously extends further than his music; it is a tragedy that we dill never see or hear anything from this man.
The score’s power is amplified exponentially by the very real shots of stone monuments that were built in what was Yugoslavia. The gradual, purposeful direction of the images and how they connect with the sound has been done with obvious care, resulting in a powerful experience.
It feels sadly fitting then that this in the film that Johann will be remembered for, and it is incredible. It is certainly not a conventional film, as rather than using an existing structure, Johann creates his own world, each stone monument studied using minimal camerawork and very slow use of zoom.
Literally a meditative experience, the pulse of the film feels reminiscent of the slight alteration of consciousness one can feel after a long period of meditation. Like most of his scores, a high quality subwoofer is essential to enjoy this as intended, including the physical sensations that are a result of his sonic exploration.
In some ways, this score is a departure from his well known scores, Arrival , Mandy and Sicario perhaps the most well known. As well as writing with Yair Elazar Glotman, the thick atmosphere rarely falls often due to the unexpected emotive string and choir sections who create an overwhelming atmosphere that at times feels desperate and lonely.
The grainy 16mm grainy black and white presentation of old monuments somehow looks futuristic and otherworldly, apt considering Tilda Swinton’s unwavering, emotionless narration of what the future of humanity looks like according to the novel of the same name.
It is an incredibly expansive sci-fi saga, yet Johann impressively strips it down to the bare essentials, doing it so well that you want to hear it again and/or immediately find the book to read yourself. His prose doesn’t waste a word.
His direction of the narration, music and images is executed with masterful rhythmic precision that becomes a powerful cinematic achievement and a testament to the creative mind that the man possessed.
Two years after his unexpected death, Last and First Men is, put simply, the perfection of minimalist artistic expression. Better yet, it is 70 minutes of quintessential Jóhann Jóhannsson.
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