In my November DVD guide I said this of The Man From Earth:
Lastly what I’m going to go ahead and call the genre release of the month. An indie film I’ve written about before: The Man From Earth. It is a straight Sci-Fi story with classic sensibilities to go with. I haven’t seen it, but I have a very good feeling about. So good, in fact, I’m going to call it the next Primer.
Turns out I was not properly briefed on just how cool this film is. I feel I was denied critical, need to know information. The Man From Earth is so good at being cool you can’t help but curse thinking about it. Or mayhaps that is just me. I get angry when someone elses writing is too good. Too Gods damned good. And too Gods damned intelligent. If I had the energy, I would drop to my knees right now and rip my shirt asunder in dramatic defeat. I submit to Jerome Bixby’s script. It is better than you, I, and, quite possibly, every science fiction film since the millennium. Well, that may be an exaggeration.
Consisting of only one location and eight characters, The Man From Earth is a triumph of storytelling at its most primal. Upon announcing his immediate departure from post as a professor, colleagues take it upon themselves to give John an impromptu going away party at the his cabin in the woods. Agitated by their unexpected presence and pushed to provide a reason for retirement, John decides to reveal to his fellow theologians the motive behind his behavior: John has been alive for 14,000 years. If he stays in any one place for more than 10 years, people start to notice he never ages.
The confession is met with understandable skepticism, but John, relieved and curious to see the direction of debate, is open to all manner of inquisition. Tension breaks to a feverish boil between the two camps; John is either telling the complete truth, which would undermine textbooks spanning generations, or he is a brilliant liar.
Conceived of in the ’60s, Sci-Fi writer Jerome Bixby [the mind responsible for Fantastic Voyage, as well as some critical "Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek" episodes] finished the screenplay for The Man From Earth on his deathbed in 1998. This accounts for the concrete sentiments of longing for immortality, of the bittersweet life it implies for the man who lives forever. Bittersweet even more is the knowledge Bixby will never again put pen to page. Imaginations young and old across every inch of this spinning ball of minerals are worse off for it.
That isn’t to say Bixby’s script is limited only to issues of mortality. The whole thing is a complex lattice of intellectual rumination; A.K.A. Smart people shooting the shit. The very processes of being human is put under the scalpel. The entire theory of knowledge, how we learn, why we learn, what makes us human, what makes us love, what makes us hate, what makes us live, what makes us die. Bixby approaches the whole of mankind with the same admiration Native Americans had for the buffalo they survived on. Every piece is put to optimal use.
What impresses most, though, is not the billowing volume of knowledge at hand, but the warm blooded logic that underlies each new discussion. Bixby has a deft hand at the rudder, navigating the waters of transition with zero turbulence. The whole of the film is dialog, but characters are in constant motion. Mundane tasks play out in the background as naturally as they do in the real world. It is one thing to write brilliant dialog, another entirely to remember to have your characters act like real humans. Of course, credit is also due for Richard Schenkman behind it all. He does a great job, especially for someone whose first four films are either Playboy Playmate videos or softcore porn. The man has talent though and managed to duplicate to an atomic level the exact air of alcohol fueled conversations between like minded individuals.
There are a few fumbles, a few stale line deliveries and blocking issues, but for the most part Schenkman keeps his cast and crew on their toes. David Lee Smith gives a very gentle presence to the benevolent immortal. He is the star of the script, for sure, but for my money the star of the movie is John Billingsly. He is a character actor you’ve surely seen before, most likely in a TV spot here or there. Watching him you get the feeling he didn’t even need to rehearse; this night may as well have been something that happened to him. Another honorable mention goes to Tony Todd, who breaks rank and gives a heartfelt performance that doesn’t bank on him playing an emissary of death.
I am prone to hate puns, or in this case half puns, but what The Man From Earth is so very smart, but so very down to Earth. Everything about the appearance of the movie is casual, but like the man in the title, there is a delicate truth underneath it all. Watching the characters plant their shovels in the dense topsoil to unearth it all is thrilling.
Get on The Man From Earth before you become the one nerd who hasn’t seen it.