Thebes
Reviews & Commentary

The Man from Earth (2007)

Also known as
Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth
Writer
Jerome Bixby
Director
Richard Schenkman
Cast
David Lee Smith, Tony Todd, John Billingsley, Ellen Crawford, Annika Peterson, William Katt, Alexis Thorpe, Richard Riehle

What if a man from the Upper Paleolithic survived until the present day?

What would he be like? Mortality is one of the defining characteristics of humanity; what would a man be like who will not die? A man who is fourteen thousand years old: he’s not only seen friends and lovers, wives and children come and go, he remembers the end of the last glacial period. He has, literally, forgotten more than any of us will ever know.

Jerome Bixby (1923–1998) was a science fiction writer, most famous for a handful of classic Trek episodes, including “Mirror, Mirror” which introduced the mirror universe, and for co-writing the story for Fantastic Voyage (1966). He began his last work, a screenplay called The Man from Earth, in the 1960s and finished it on his deathbed. Forty years is a long time to spend on a script, but it pays off in one of the most intelligent science fiction films I’ve seen.

John Oldman (David Lee Smith) is a professor who is packing his truck, planning to leave his college, when his colleagues show up to throw him an impromptu going-away party. The colleagues are Harry (John Billingsley), a biologist; Edith (Ellen Crawford), a biblical literalist; Dan (Tony Todd), an anthropologist; and Sandy (Annika Peterson), a historian who is in love with John. They are later joined by Art (William Katt), an archeology professor, and his student, Linda Murphy (Alexis Thorpe).

When his friends question why he’s leaving, John poses the question quoted at the top of this review: “What if a man from the Upper Paleolithic survived until the present day?” The rest of the film is John talking about his life, beginning 14,000 years ago and continuing through Sumeria, India, Palestine, and Europe to the present day. His friends don’t know what to make of John’s story, wavering between belief and scepticism. The situation comes to a head with the arrival of Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), an elderly psychiatrist.

Immortality is a classic science fiction trope that’s usually the domain of writers rather than film makers, for the simple fact that it’s a subject that’s hard to represent visually. Bixby has side-stepped that issue in The Man from Earth by simply ignoring it, instead building the film almost entirely on dialogue. Richard Schenkman’s direction is, of course, not unimportant, but he’s savvy enough to know that the script and the actors can carry the film, and he keeps the camera work simple. A lesser director would have gotten nervous that not enough was happening, but Schenkman keeps it classic. The editing, too, by Neil Grieve, is confidently understated.

The Man from Earth is a tour-de-force of sharp dialogue writing and acting. David Lee Smith is not afraid to be subtle. He plays Oldman as something of a cipher — there is the sense of a calm surface hiding great, unexplorable depths. And I imagine 14,000-year-old would be a cipher, his emotions smoothed down by time. The film, too, is an apparently uneventful surface, underneath which is a fascinating and, in its way, thrilling story. It’s one of the rare science fiction films that dare to take their subject matter seriously. It is a high concept film — a college professor tells his friends that he is 14,000 years old — in the finest sense of the word, letting a well-defined premise and sharply-drawn characters guide the story. It was made for $200,000, using a single set, and it is more memorable and more exciting (intellectually and emotionally) than a dozen high-budget action spectacles. Much like another recent great low-budget science fiction film, Primer (Carruth, 2004), The Man from Earth is about ideas, not about action or visual effects. And like Primer, and like all great science fiction, its heart is a single question: What if?

Written by Kalle on Friday August 21, 2009
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 2000s, sf

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