The Man From Earth
Back when I was growing up in the fifties, the best source of real science fiction was some of the pulp comics and the venerable paperback books. While many parents of the day dismissed these as trashy and worthless, they were great works of imagination. It was with these stories that I learned to love the genre and became familiar with such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. The special effects were all in your mind helping the reader to learn to reach out with their thoughts to distant times and places. Now Sci-Fi has for the most part been co-opted by the computer special effects people. Everything is visually oriented and feed to the audience. One film has taken us back to the good old days of classic Sci-Fi; ‘The Man from Earth.’ This film has the merest fraction of the budget of a modern blockbuster; I don’t they could fund the catering truck with what this film cost to produce. Without such spectacular special effects, this film has to fall back on something forgotten with many films of the genre, sheer human talent. The director, cast, and writer are all experts in their respective fields but more about that later. The setting is simplistic almost to a minimalist point. This is not so much a film to watch as one to immerse in. While not without its flaws this movie will make you think, and that was always the point of science fiction; to take you someplace special unlike anything in your real-world experience.
As the film opens, a group of friends gathers for a goodbye party. Their friends and colleague are about to leave town rather suddenly, and they want to have the last time together. The one leaving is John Oldman (David Lee Smith). He is packing up his pick-up truck as the cars of his friends begin to park around him. The location is remote, the kind of seclusion that is just perfect for a long chat with friends. John mentions to his friends that he doesn’t like goodbye, but they are adamant about the ad hoc party. The party had started at the college they work at, but John suddenly disappeared only to have his closest friends follow him home. Harry (John Billingsley) and Edith (Ellen Crawford) brought the leftovers from the formal party hoping to find out why John is leaving without a real explanation. Also, in attendance at this point are Dan (Tony Todd) and Sandy (Annika Peterson) who are just as bewildered as the others. They tell John that Art (William Katt) will be joining them shortly. Edith notices a painting among John’s belongings. She thinks it is a van Gogh but one that she has never seen before. John dismisses the query telling her it was just a gift from someone he once knew. Edith obviously knows about fine art and notes the painting is mounted like a real van Gogh and is inscribed to a friend named Jacque. They all retire to inside John’s cabin, and the topic of his sudden departure is on everyone’s lips. Sandy finds a bow and John tells them he hunts deer. Dan notes that most people can bring down a deer with a telescopic rifle. The small group is starting to realize that there is a lot about John they never knew. Art arrives with a student, Linda (Alexis Thorpe), joining the group inside. It turns out that Art teaches archeology and Linda is now one of his students. When the topic of why and where John is going he replies that he just likes to move on every so often. Dan finds an ancient stone tool among the last of John’s belongings in the cabin. Art and Dan dated the artifact back to the age of the early Cro-Magnon days some 14,000 years ago. The group is unwilling to let John’s mystery go. John finally proposes a hypothetical question. ‘What if a man from the upper Paleolithic era survived until today, what would he be like’? Dan notes that there is little difference anatomically between this cave man and modern man. If he had an inquiring mind over the millennium, he would have an astonishing degree of knowledge. Harry, the biologist of the group, states that he would have to have perfect regeneration of his cells, especially those of the vital organs. A man with such perfect renewal abilities could live forever. John then drops a bombshell. He tells his friends that he had a chance to sail with Columbus, but he was not the adventurous type. He was pretty sure the earth was round, but he didn’t want to take the chance. Initially, his friends think he is just joking. John tells them that every few years people notice he doesn’t age and he has to move on. He challenges them to figure out if he is spinning a tall tale or telling the truth. Each of his friends uses their different areas of expertise to question John on everything from the pre-historic terrain to points of historical discovery. His friends even call on a psychiatrist, Gruber (Richard Riehle) to evaluate John.
When a story is based in a single room, you must depend on the talent of the writer more than usual. The best thing about this film is having one of the best science fiction writers for television and film, Jerome Bixby. Unless you are a real devotee of the genre, you might not know his name, but it is certain you know his works. An episode of the Twilight Zone about a little boy with god-like powers who sends all those who challenge him to the cornfield; that was Bixby’s work. He also wrote several original Star Trek episodes including ‘Mirror, Mirror’ where he forwarded the concept of an alternate universe. In another Star Trek episode, Requiem for Methuselah, the character of Flint is a man who has lived throughout time, prefiguring John here. Also, part of his resume is ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and the Sci-Fi classic, ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space’ and ‘Curse of the Faceless Man’. In this story, Bixby does not provide a pat answer. Although John confesses at the end of the film, there are still doubts whether he was telling the truth. This is great psychological sci-fi. It demands that the audience think and better yet discuss the story. Each of the characters comes from a different scholarly discipline, and each has their emotional baggage. Edith is upset when her religious beliefs are challenged. If she accepts John as telling the truth, she must abandon the basis for her faith. Art is sure that everything said could be gleaned from textbooks. Harry as the biologist is the one most excepting aside from the youngest of the group, Linda. Not only are the group challenging John they are facing their doubts, fears, and beliefs.
Since this is such a claustrophobic setting director Richard Schenkman studied the best example of a one-room drama ever, Sidney Lumet’s ‘12 Angry Men’. Like the master, Schenkman changes the perspective of the camera throughout the film. He starts above the line of sight and as the film progresses lowers the camera until the walls seem to be closing in. This is exactly what Lumet did. Schenkman is not that experienced in a film like this. Most of his previous work consisted of a couple of Playboy videos and the lamentable romantic comedy, ‘The Pompatus of Love.’ The biggest flaws here come from the extremely small budget and tight filming schedule. They had only a single week to rehearse and another to film, so the actors were not entirely able to memorize their lines properly.
The cast was very good considering the lack of preparation affords to them. David Lee Smith is very good as the mysterious John. The way he presents his character you don’t know if he is the world’s last surviving cave man. He plays it straight with just a touch of enjoying the intellectual challenge. John Billingsley gives one of the best performances here. He has the look of a man intrigued by what his friend of ten years is saying. As a man of science, he remains open at least to the possibility. The other stellar performance comes from Tony Todd. He appears as a man up for a good challenge who is skeptical but is drawn into the debate. Ellen Crawford also distinguishes her self here. There is a scene when John is challenging her religious beliefs that she is almost out of frame. All you can see are her hands clenched tightly holding her emotions back.
There has been a DVD of this film for several years helping it achieve the cult status it so richly earned. Still, from the perspective to current technology, that format was inadequate to provide the experience the audience deserves. After over a decade the distribution rights have been acquired from Anchor Bay by Music Video Distributors who helped fans celebrate its tenth anniversary with a remastered high definition release on Blu-ray. A sign that a story was successful can be demonstrated by the lasting effect it has had on the audience, it has remined the topic of deconstruction and analysis and numerous levels od intense discussion. Thus, tenth anniversary not only brings this new Blu-ray release but scheduled for early in 2018 will bring a long-hoped sequel. Even if you already own a copy of the DVD it is imperative to invest in this new release. the greatly enhanced audio and video will reveal previously unnoticeable details, but the selection of addition connect it a wonderland for fans.
Posted 10/28/07 Posted 03/21/2018