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“The Man From Earth” is a time travel movie that never travels through time; it’s very much a talky movie in every sense of the word, as the entire film consists of a group of people sitting around a cabin discussing theories and hypothesis, much of it based on truth as told by one man who may or may not be lying. It is, for all intents and purposes, a play shot as a movie, based on the last story ever written by noted sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby. And you know what? It is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
When I say there is no action in “The Man From Earth”, I mean there is not a single shred of action in the entire movie. That is, if you define “action” in traditional cinema terms — people doing things of the physical nature in service of narrative progression. The film, from beginning to end, is one big discussion on the nature of man, theorizing how, or why, a man would exist if he lived thousands of years, from the Cro-Magnon era to the present day. How would such a man function? How would he survive? What would be his reason for existence, if there were one at all?
In order to explore this question, Bixby introduces us to the story of John Oldman (David Lee Smith), a college professor who is moving on. On the day of the move, John’s colleagues show up at his cabin for an impromptu goodbye party. He isn’t expecting it; in fact, he doesn’t seem to really want it. But soon John comes to embrace the opportunity the gathering provides him, and offers up the theory that he is, in fact, thousands of years old, having survived since the Paleolithic era when he began life as a caveman. And because he does not age, John leaves a place every ten years or so in order to skirt suspicion about his age.
Is he mad? Is he telling the truth? He seems to believe that he’s telling the truth. John’s colleagues, all intellectuals and experts in their field, are given this nugget so that they may question him and, if possible, contradict him. Can he die? Is he immortal? Does he exist outside of time? How does one exist for 14,000 years and live to tell the tale? What is the nature of religion to a man who has survived for that long? If he has seen what he has seen, does faith still hold sway? And for that matter, for what purposes are they even entertaining such wild ideas about someone they thought they knew for the last ten years?
Clocking in at a breezy and very stimulating 90 minutes, “The Man From Earth” is sci-fi in premise, but not sci-fi in execution. The film is only concern with theories, with questions and answers, and the possibilities of those answers being true, and not the delusions of a creative mind. What is the nature of truth? Of survival? Of life? What does it all mean? Is there even any meaning to it? All good questions, and you won’t find a very satisfactory answer in the film, because it has few to offer.
“The Man From Earth” works if you allow it to work. The film does show its hand toward the end, perhaps as a concession to viewers who are demanding a firm answer in regards to John’s immortality — is he or isn’t he? It might have been better, and indeed I would have preferred it, if the film had not given an answer at all. Instead, “The Man From Earth” should have ended with ambiguity, leaving the question about John’s immortality muddled.
Nevertheless, the ideas and notions presented in the film are interesting, a singular premise expanded into a feature-length film that is achieved wonderfully by cast and crew under a modest budget. The cast is excellent, led by a soulful performance from David Lee Smith. Genre vet Tony Todd puts away his knives for a strong supporting turn, and Richard Riehle as a doubting psychiatrist is effective. In a movie that involves a group of people arguing and exchanging ideas within one location, everything depends on the cast, and to his credit, director Richard Schenkman has cast the film brilliantly.
In a lot of ways, “The Man From Earth” is hard to describe. Even for an action junkie like myself, who usually finds it easy to shut off the brain in order to enjoy a movie, the premise and follow-through of Schenkman’s film is simply irresistible. Jerome Bixby, who was said to have finished the story on his deathbed, has crafted an unendingly fascinating tale of truth, lies, and possibilities. This is science fiction at its best, the kind that challenges and presents new ideas.
Take my advice and see this movie.
Richard Schenkman (director) / Jerome Bixby (screenplay)
CAST: John Billingsley … Harry
Ellen Crawford … Edith
William Katt … Art
Annika Peterson … Sandy
Richard Riehle … Gruber
David Lee Smith … John Oldman
Alexis Thorpe … Linda
Tony Todd … Dan