Monday, January 28, 2008

The Man From Earth (2007)

The Man From Earth, an excellent example of thought-provoking, no-budget filmmaking, works on a deceivingly simple idea: “what if a man from the Upper Paleolithic survived until the present day?”

This is the question that John Oldman, a mysterious professor of history, asks his friends and colleagues when they gather at his house at the beginning of the film. John is inexplicably leaving town after ten years at a promising and successful job, and when pressed for the reason by his guests--an educated lot that includes professors of biology, archeology and anthropology-- he begins to tell them a most extraordinary story. John, they learn, is immortal. Born 14,000 years ago in the age of cavemen, he has walked the earth for centuries, never aging, always moving on after ten years for fear of being discovered. What follows is an elegant philosophical discussion about the nature of time, aging, knowledge, immortality, and belief, as John is interrogated by his befuddled and skeptical friends.

The Man From Earth is certainly a science fiction film, but not in the classical sense. Its script, deftly written by the late Jerome Bixby (of Star Trek fame), simply takes a fascinating idea and explores its logical implications in a refreshing and intelligent manner. There are no bug-eyed monsters or robots or sleek spacecraft. In fact, the whole of the film takes place within the confines of one room, and the story consists mostly of educated people talking about obscure subjects. Yet the film still manages to be utterly engrossing. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi pictures or 2004’s Primer, The Man From Earth is a film of big ideas, not big special effects, and this humble style is one of its greatest assets. Director Richard Schenkman wisely keeps his camera in the simplest of set-ups for most of the film, allowing Bixby’s script to speak for itself. Likewise, the sparseness of the film’s set design and its lo-fi look, off-putting at first, eventually reveals itself to be necessary in order to give the viewer the space to contemplate the heady ideas it has to offer.

The film’s cast, unusually strong for such a small movie, is made up of several familiar faces, the kind of actors we all recognize but whose names we rarely know. John is played with a nice subtlety by David Lee Smith, a ubiquitous character actor in film and network television with the sort of everyman qualities that seem necessary to make his character believable. John's colleagues Art and Dan are played by William Katt and Tony Todd, both of whom are probably best known for their work in the horror genre in House and Candyman, respectively. Todd certainly shines the most out of the supporting cast as Dan, the perceptive and open-minded anthropologist who chooses to take John’s story at face value, mystified by the possibilities that such a person’s existence could hold. “I,” he says in a lovely monologue near the end of the film. “A kind of latitude on what we happily call reality.” Still, not all John’s guests are so understanding. The rest of the group’s reactions range from incredulity, to skepticism, all the way to downright anger as the sheer scope of John’s experience becomes clear and his claims begin to force them to question their own values.

The Man From Earth is most fun when it’s exploring the implications of John’s existence and what it has taught him, as it’s clear that Bixby put a great amount of thought into constructing his character. John has a great knowledge of history, but as he explains, his perspective at any given age was always so narrow and confined that he was never able to truly gain any kind of advantage on his fellow man. When the earth was said to be flat, he believed it. As Dan observes, “no matter how long a man lives he can’t be in advance of his times... he can’t know more than the best of the race knows.” Moreover, since John is forced to move every ten years he is never able to truly explore any particular career path or field of study. The cruel irony the film presents for John is that he is never able to live his life in the same way that ordinary people do. Even though he is immortal, he must divide his existence into an infinite number of short, ten-year lifespans, never putting down roots or staying in one place long enough for people to notice that he isn’t growing any older. Indeed, there is a certain sadness to John’s situation that I wished the film had more readily acknowledged, but Bixby, perhaps wisely, is more concerned with the philosophical than the personal.

The Man From Earth is certainly not a perfect film. The character of Sandy--portrayed to be John’s sort-of girlfriend and likely the person who would have the most insight on his character--scarcely speaks for the better part of the film, and the question of how John manages to not age is dismissed with a perfunctory line about how in science “anything is possible,” but these are only small complaints. The film intends to exist as a sort of philosophical dialogue, and it achieves this goal quite effectively. The conversation at its center is always interesting and challenging, and, most importantly, never ventures into the realm of pretentiousness.

Made for roughly $200,000, The Man From Earth is a textbook example of how to create an engrossing, entertaining film with a minimal budget. Contemplative science fiction like this is forever becoming rarer on the screen, and its too bad, because films like this one often manage to be some of the most affecting and memorable stories you’re likely to see.


As a brief postscript, it is worth noting that the producers of The Man From Earth have made news by claiming that file sharers illegally downloading the film have been instrumental in its gaining attention and selling more copies than it ever would have otherwise. This is how I found out about the film, and it's only further proof of what many people have known for a long time: that a reasonably free exchange of information is good for art, and the numbers on the deleterious effects of file sharing are anything but exact.


Dustin said...

I must see this film!

Also I must say that it reminds me of the Twilight Zones of olden times, or of a radio play. A great concept played out over a constrained budget always betters a half witted concept with all of the budget in the world.

PS i like that you referenced Primer. thats one of the few films i still think about from time to time in an every day setting.

Will said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will said...

We believe we've already seen this film. It was "Encino Man," a 1992 winner of the Razzie award. Hands down, Pauly Shore and Brendan Fraser's best performances (not including Sean Astin)... a path already forged my friend... GOZANGAS!!!
- The General and Slick Willy

Kislay said...

Nice post . I think of this movie as the 12 Angry Men of Sci-fi . I enjoyed it immensely . It does give you a lot of food for thought . In the movie , the biologist guy says that the human body is designed to last 190 years . Is that a fact for sure ?

Hoang said...

I wonder whether Ebert ever watched the film?

John B. Rosenman said...

I agree with your review almost completely. This is one of my all-time favorite films. One point I'd quibble about is your belief that the film doesn't address the question of how Oldman doesn't age. But the film does! One of the characters, a biologist, I believe, discusses the process by which a body would be completely efficient and "detox" itself. He goes into some length on the subject.