If you could find only one other person at the end of time, Nick Nolte would be a near-optimal individual to encounter, especially if he ran Earth’s last movie theater. Alas, while “Last Words” has initial intriguing fun with that premise, it eventually sends its two protagonists on a post-apocalyptic odyssey that’s defined by stasis, not to mention an abundance of half-baked themes. Despite a collection of A-list luminaries, writer-director Jonathan Nossiter’s drama is a celebration of cinema that itself is lacking the medium’s invigorating spark, and thus seems likely to enchant only the most charitable of viewers.
Based on a novel by Santiago Amigorena (who co-wrote the script), “Last Words” revolves around Kal (Kalipha Touray), who in 2085 believes himself to be the final survivor of a global climate-change catastrophe that spawned ecological decay, war, famine and disease. After losing his pregnant sister to a mob of young French children, Kal — motivated by film canisters found in Paris — decides to seek out the Cineteca di Bologna, which is now a one-man operation overseen by Nolte’s aged cinephile, who’ll later be dubbed Shakespeare. It’s a fitting moniker, since his tufts of white hair and matching bushy beard make him resemble a crazed King Lear. As it turns out, he’s less a dying monarch than a quasi-Father Cinema, and when he shows Kal how to spool a projector that’s powered by a bicycle and a hand crank, it’s as if he’s demonstrating a mysterious, magical ritual from a bygone civilization.
It’s not long before Kal is having celluloid dreams. Recognizing he has a new acolyte, Shakespeare opts to forgo suicide and manufacture fresh film reels, as well as give Kal an assignment: to construct the world’s only working movie camera. The duo subsequently embark on this mission together, following signs to “the Call,” where, they hope, they’ll locate others. Lugging their equipment in a cart, they resemble traveling performers of old, and director Nossiter and cinematographer Clarissa Cappellani conjure an atmosphere of desolate loneliness through striking shots of the two set against vast desert wastelands strewn with rubble, debris and garbage. The action’s frequent silence, punctuated by the sounds of footsteps and the whipping wind (along with Kal’s narration), amplifies the oppressive mood of alienation and anguish.
Kal and Shakespeare’s destination is a ramshackle commune created by Zyberski (Stellan Skarsgård), where the ground is green — a shocking sight in this barren reality — but nonetheless toxic, and folks wander about in a stunned stupor. It’s here that “Last Words” becomes similarly racked with lethargy, as Kal and Shakespeare bring temporary joy to their new acquaintances via black-and-white movies (including by Buster Keaton). The rejuvenating power of these dramas and comedies is paralleled by Kal having sex with, and impregnating, Batlk (Charlotte Rampling). The cinema is life, announces “Last Words,” but it does so with an increasing lack of inspiration, resorting to stock scenes of people smiling at films projected on sheets hung from columned ruins and later, of Shakespeare and Kal staring at moving images in dark caves in a manner akin to our earliest ancestors.
The discovery of seeds that might again make Earth fertile accentuates “Last Words’” notion of cinema as a revitalizing force, even as it’s presented as a vessel for humanity’s collective memory. Yet as with Kal’s fuzzy relationship with Dima (Alba Rohrwacher), or the paper-thin characters of Zyberski and Batlk, Nossiter’s latest becomes fragmented and conceptual to the point of playing like a handsomely mounted actor’s workshop exercise. At least as the wryly morose Shakespeare, a ragamuffin-ish Nolte makes this journey occasionally captivating and lively — if not, ultimately, one worth seeing through to the end.