A Tunnel in the Sky

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Last and First Men

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 12, 2021

I've started this review several times, continually shifting my thoughts around. I decided to at least try to be as concise as possible. I doubt it will matter anyway, since I'm not likely to say anything that will entice others to seek this film out. First, it is based on a novel by Olaf Stapledon, who is hardly a mainstream writer. Most of his work is more philosophical than narrative, and director Jóhann Jóhannsson was wise to keep this esoteric too. It has not yet been released on DVD or Blu-Ray, but at the current time it is streaming on Metrograph. That might not be available on some smart TVs, but I have it on my Amazon Fire Stick, and their site says it's also on (at least some) Android TVs, Apple TV, Roku, Google TV, and Chromecast. I don't think they offer a free trial, at least they didn't when I signed up, but it's just $5 a month. They've extended the streaming run several times already, currently it's till December 31, 2022.

The premise of the novel is that in the very far future, possibly two billion years, one of the Last Men has been able to project his thoughts back in time, hopefully to influence the actions of one of the First Men, meaning current humanity. The Last Men are at the eighteenth stage of human evolution. Their development was also aided by genetic manipulation, and they currently live on Neptune. They have determined that is far enough from the sun to avoid extinction when the sun encounters an approaching nebulous mass. However, they may be wrong, and later attempt to move Neptune out of its orbit, to get as far away from the sun as possible. The book has a lot more detail on the various stages of evolution, from the Second Men to the Eighteenth, but the film is only about the hopeful communication with a First Man. Tilda Swinton provides the narration, as adapted by Jóhannsson and José Enrique Macián.

We don't see the narrator, nor do we see anybody. All of the visuals are of massive monuments, supposedly those built on Neptune, but which are actually World War 2 monuments, mostly in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. It's all in black and white, except for the infrequent green blip that looks and acts like you would see on an oscilloscope. The original film was 16mm, but I haven't been able to determine if any of it was later reshot on 35mm, or digitally, or how it might have been upgraded. The aspect ratio is different than I would expect from 16mm. Many scenes are very sharp and clear, others are not, but I think that was a conscious decision. In one portion of the narration it says the atmosphere of Neptune is changing, and several scenes there were full of mist. Camera movements are very slow, both in panning and zooms. Some shots are of the sky, or the mist, and in those instances I almost started seeing patterns in the grainy film emulsion. The musical score adds to the atmospheric nature; somber, contemplative, mesmerizing. Another time, while thinking I was seeing something through the mist, I was right. Very slowly, the mist parts and one of the monuments appears, but then it cuts quickly to black. Either that time, or another when the screen was dark, I thought I could tell the camera was panning across, but that might have been the suggestion of the music.

The first showing of the film was in the UK at the 2017 Manchester International Festival. Swinton provided the narration, but it may have been recorded, or she may have read it live. The score was live, performed by the BBC Philharmonic. Several other festival showings followed, in London, Sydney, and Berlin, then it was released digitally in July 2020 by BFI Distribution in the UK. I assume the current version has changed somewhat, including the score completed by Yair Elazar Glotman, since Jóhannsson died in early 2018 before the digital release. It's hard to classify it as a feature film, but if so, it is Jóhannsson's only one; his last and first. It is only 70 minutes long, but there is a 7 minute introduction on Metrograph by Bill Morrison, a photographer and film archivist who had worked with Jóhannsson on several projects. Jóhannsson's previous work was as a composer. His name was unfamiliar to me, but I now realize I have heard his music. He worked with Denis Villenueve several times, including on Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival. He began work on Blade Runner 2049, but Villenueve changed his mind, deciding on something more similar to the original film's score by Vangelis.

Not only do I want to re-watch this as many times as I can while it is on Metrograph, I will buy the Blu-Ray if it is ever released. I also want to re-read the book, but I can say that about many others. The majority of movie-goers would not sit still for this, but that's their loss. After seeing several recent blockbusters on Disney or HBO-Max, which were entertaining enough but hardly satisfying, this was a revelation. Recommended for those willing to take a chance on something different. Below, one of the monuments which was shown from many angles, reminded me of a giant venus fly trap. Not sure how it relates to the Communist Party's remembrances of the war.

EDIT: I still hope for a Blu-Ray release in the future, but since my last update it has returned to Metrograph. They now say it will be available until December 31, 2022.


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Jóhann Jóhannsson

Jóhann Jóhannsson
José Enrique Macián

Based on the book by Olaf Stapledon

September 21, 2020

Tilda Swinton (Narrator)

Full Credits at IMDb

Streaming exclusively at Metrograph until 12/31/22 (or later if they renew again).