I was having lunch with a friend the other day, and naturally the conversation turned to movies. He asked me if I had seen Last and First Men. I had not seen it, nor had I heard about the movie. I asked in turn if it was based on the Olaf Stapledon novel. His answer was yes.

Say what, boy?

You think Cronenberg did something by adapting Naked Lunch and Crash into films?

Allow me to put this into some kind of perspective. Stapledon was a British philosopher who wrote a handful of intellectual SF books in the nineteen-thirties. Last and First Men was his debut novel.

I read Stapledon when I was a teenager. I struggled through Last and First Men, but two others went down a lot smoother.

Odd John is a novel that chronicles a man born with superhuman intelligence. It contains the first usage of the term homo superior.

Sirius is the story of a dog who has the intelligence of an average man.

Both these novels are heavy with theories inspired by Nietzsche, Spinoza, and other philosophical thinkers.

Last and First Men is another story altogether.

Last and First Men is a dizzying novel that details the future history of humankind from the end of the first world war to two billion years in the future. If that isn't daunting enough for you, Stapledon's thematic sequel, Star Maker, recounts the history of the entire universe, with humanity getting only a paragraph or two.

I struggled through Last and Fist Men when I was young, but I wasn't quite ready for it. Jack Williamson and Isaac Asimov were more suited to me at the time.

How, how, could anyone pull off such an ambitious adaptation?

Icelandic Composer Johann Johannsson came up with a brilliant way to do it.

Last and First Men, the movie, has no actors. The film (shot in 16mm) is set almost entirely among a desolate landscape of Yugoslavian World War 2 monuments and memorials. The grainy, black and white footage is disorienting and hypnotic. The story is told entirely in narration from a Last Man, voiced by Tilda Swinton.

This intoxicating, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately oddly hopeful story doesn't even seem like something made by modern filmmakers. It's like something discovered. A reverse time capsule with a message from future beings so different from us as to seem alien.

Last and First Men is anything but commercial, and most science fiction fans would be far better served by watching the latest iteration of Star Trek. It's a work of visual art suited to a select few with the temperament to appreciate true cinematic exploration.

This is the only film directed by Johann Johannsson. He was a composer who often mixed electronic sounds with symphonic performances in his pieces. He died before Last and First Men was released. The reported cause of death was a lethal combination of cocaine and flu medicine. If true, it's a shameful tragedy. How could someone so talented and obviously intelligent be so stupid?

Last and First Men is a film for true cinematic explorers. If Skinamarinck was too excruciatingly slow for you, I'd advise you to take a pass. But if your mind is open, and your brain is hungry, you will be rewarded by it.

Written by Mark Sieber

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