Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I don't believe this film got a theatrical release, or if it did it was very limited. The DVD came out last November, and since then I have read several positive reviews. I recently placed it in my Netflix queue and watched it this weekend. I had been afraid it would be interesting but boring, seeing as how it is all dialog and no action, but it proves that with the proper script, and decent acting that takes itself seriously, even the most static film can be very powerful. As I have stated several times, I only bother writing reviews for things I can recommend to others. Not only is that the case for this film, I will also be purchasing it as soon as possible. I know it is one I will be watching on numerous occasions. However, I have no idea how this film will be received by others who read this, but if you think SF is mainly about ideas you may like it as much.
UPDATED NEWS: I guess I was right that this film did not get a theatrical release, since it has recently been nominated for a Saturn Award in their Best DVD Release category.
Jerome Bixby is best known to SF fans from television adaptations of his work. His short story "It's a Good Life" was the basis of one of the most popular episodes of the original Twilight Zone, as well as being used for one of the segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and again for the 2003 reimagining of the series, and was also parodied in one of the Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" shows. He also wrote four episodes of the original Star Trek (Mirror Mirror, By Any Other Name, Day of the Dove and Requiem for Methuselah). That last one is possibly the genesis of the idea from which he developed this film script, which was completed in 1998, literally on his death bed, and then nurtured through several aborted adaptation attempts by his son Emerson Bixby.
What if immortality was possible? What would such an individual be able to teach us, what insights into history and human psychology would he be able to impart? John Oldman (David Lee Smith) is in preparations for leaving his teaching position at a local college, and several of his colleagues and friends show up to ask why he is leaving on such short notice, and wondering where he is going. At first he sidesteps all of their queries, saying he just has "itchy feet" and has to move on. I am sure it is his feelings for his girlfriend Sandy (Annika Peterson) that eventually helps him decide to confide in his friends. At first he gives them the impression his "confession" is merely research for a story he is writing, but it doesn't take long for several of them to believe he is actually talking about events that he has experienced (or at least that he believes it). His claim is that he is more than 14,000 years old, born in the late Paleolithic period. At least one of them thinks he is crazy and another colleague, a psychologist (Richard Riehle), is called in to analyze his story.
Nearly the entire movie takes place within the confines of the living room of Oldman's mountain cabin, with just a few scenes outside. What might seem a limitation for dramatics has been crafted into one of the most profound, thought-provoking films I have ever seen. Granted, there are a couple of instances in his story where I think they may have gone a bit overboard with specificity, but I know it was done in order to make certain statements about the human condition, especially our spiritual nature. Fundamentalist Christians will probably be repelled by certain propositions, but for anyone who considers themselves a free-thinker I don't think the concepts will be hard to accept.
The cast includes several recognizable faces to SF fans; John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise's Dr. Phlox) as the biologist Harry, William Katt (The Greatest American Hero) as paleontologist Art, and Tony Todd (from Candyman to ST:TNG, DS9 and Voyager, to the current NBC show Chuck) as historian Dan. Also featured are Ellen Crawford (ER) as Edith (I've forgotten what her academic specialty was, but she stands in for the Christian sensibility here), and Alexis Thorpe (soap opera Days of Our Lives) as Linda, a student and romantic interest of Art's.
This room full of intellectuals is what makes the premise work as well as it does. All of them use the vast knowledge of their academic disciplines to try to poke holes in Oldman's story, but he seems to have an answer for all of their objections. The fact that he does not have detailed memories about certain points in his life seems a way they can refute his claims, but he counters with questions concerning specifics about their own lives, especially their childhoods, that stymie them. It is apparent that most of us retain many of the high points of our lives, and unfortunately some of the lows, but many details are lost.
Toward the end, having seen how his revelations have perplexed, and in some cases angered, his friends, he relents and confesses that he has been leading them on, simply developing the ideas he will incorporate in his story. At least a couple of them wonder which is the real truth, so convincing had his confession been. After most of them have departed, one more detail is revealed, overheard by the psychologist, that...Well, I won't reveal that spoiler here.
In conclusion, all I can say is that you will have to watch it to understand why I was held spellbound by a room of "talking heads." This might not be technically SF, but it's close enough, and the world needs more films that make us think, about ourselves, our past and our futures, and about what it means to be human. 4 out of five stars from me. It is too low-profile a film to have been recognized by the Academy Awards, but I will lay odds that it will end up on this year's Hugo ballot. Apparently it didn't fall into the proper time frame for the upcoming Nebulas, since its ballot includes films as old as V for Vendetta, Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth (which won last year's Hugo.)
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