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 paper back book. While many parents of the day dismissed these as trashy and worthless they were actually 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 are gathering for a goodbye party. Their friends and colleague is about to leave town rather suddenly and they want to have a 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 rife. 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 date 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 begin to 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 have to 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 devote 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 corn field; 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’. In this story Bixby does not provide a pat answer. Although John makes a confession at the end of the film there are still doubts whether or not 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 own 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 own 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 afford to them. David Lee Smith is very good as the mysterious John. The way he presents his character you really 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.
This is a true gem to watch. Starz / Anchor Bay is to be commended for bringing this to DVD. They have some big budget titles but they best they have to offer is usually these films that are so worth while but you most likely never heard of them. The video is in a clear anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. It has a look and feel more like that of an off Broadway play which is just perfect. This feeling is also translated to the Dolby 5.1 audio. Two speakers would have done the job nicely but the rear speakers do add depth to the sound field. There is an audio commentary track with author Gary Westfahl, who wrote a biography of Bixby and lastly Emerson Bixby, the producer and son of the author. Another commentary track features Billingsley, and the director. There are four featurettes included on the disc. The first is a look at the story behind the script and how it came to be a film. Then there is a consideration of the tight fitting set. Next there is a featurette that focuses on Bixby’s Star trek connection and finally the tale of the script to the screen. It you enjoy a god puzzle and love science fiction this is a must for you.