The Man From Earth (film, 2008)


From Death Ray 15.

2007/PG/87 mins

FOUR STARS

Director: Richard Schenkman

Writer: Jerome Bixby

Starring: David Lee Smith, John Billingsley, Ellen Crawford, William Katt, Richard Riehle, Annika Peterson, Tony Todd and Alexis Thorpe

 A professor claims to be 14,000 years old in this tight little example of front parlour SF.

 The Man from Earth is the last work of Jerome Bixby, the well-respected US scriptwriter who gave us Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek‘s Mirror Universe. Its story, that of a man who may or may not be 14,000 years old, bears some similarity in idea to the third season classic Star Trek episode ‘Requiem for Methuselah’, which Bixby also wrote. In execution, however, it is entirely different.

The Man From Earth is a fine piece of science fiction, bereft of many of the trappings we have come to expect from the genre on TV. There is no action, no effects, no exotic location. It’s a tight character piece, shot entirely around a small bungalow. Essentially, it is just one conversation. A bunch of college professors discover that their colleague John Oldman is trying to leave unannounced. They visit him to throw him a surprise farewell party and, hurt, quiz him as to why he is sneaking away. He reveals that he always moves on once every ten years. Further pressed, he gives in. His reluctant explanation is that he is immortal and leaves when people begin to notice that he does not age. It flabbergasts his friends and, as he tells them of more and more of his past, outrages them. Is he mad, on drugs, winding them up or telling the truth? This simple premise, complicated by a couple of twists, is all there is to the film, but the tightness of the dialogue, the quality of direction and the performances engross totally. It is a piece of understated theatre, on the exact opposite end of the SF continuum to blockbusters like Transformers.

The film got a lot of stick in America for its supposed anti-Christian message. This is poppycock, though it does bang that favourite liberalist SF drum – that religions, being based on half-remembered truths, become inevitability corrupted – in asking us to consider what truth really is.

Though the idea was conceived by Bixby in the 60s, he did not complete the screenplay until he was dying, so the film’s focus on friendship, love, family and fleeting happiness has real emotion to it. There’s a bittersweet sadness behind the words, a sense of moving on. In John Oldman’s supposed permanence, Bixby highlights life’s brevity. Excellent.

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