[dropcap] W [/dropcap]hen it comes down to it, there are, essentially, two kinds of science fiction films: the futuristic adventure story, such as Star Wars and the recent Guardians of the Galaxy, and the thoughtful examination of an issue or proposal, couched in a world just different enough from ours to be palatable. The Man From Earth is most definitely the latter, almost to its detriment.
The Man From Earth is an adaptation of the final work of Jerome Bixby, a sci-fi writer best known for his work on the original Star Trek. It was a script he worked on his entire life, and its theme of an immortal throughout the ages is one that surfaced in his other works, most obviously the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah” (which is how I first heard of it). Given that Bixby himself was born in 1923, it’s easy to see why the theme would have fascinated him: with all the major events he’d have lived through, from the Great Depression to World War 2 to landing on the Moon, just imagine the kind of stories that a man who’d lived through all of human history might have to tell. And that simple conceit is what lies at the heart of this movie, approached from a philosophical angle that’s certainly not for everyone.
The film starts with one Professor John Oldman (which is exactly the kind of pun I’d never get tired of making as an immortal) packing his things and getting ready to leave town with the aid of his fellow faculty members. As they settle in for a farewell party, their inquiries about his strange possessions eventually lead to an admission: that he was once a cave man, and has continued to live, unaging, for well over ten thousand years. His colleagues question him, often based on their own areas of expertise (with biology, psychology, archaeology, and history among them) to try to test the veracity of his story. He claims that to keep from being discovered, he changes identities and names every decade or so, which would mean he’s had a ton of names throughout his life, some of them rather well known. The knowledge and beliefs of each character dictate how they respond, and it’s interesting to watch how they shift and change positions throughout the film.
But that is, essentially, all there is to the film. With a microbudget of $200,000, it’s very confined, with the entire story taking place in and around Oldman’s home. There are no flashbacks to accompany John’s accounts of the past, which oddly enough works to maintain the mystery over whether he’s telling the truth. There’s not a whole lot in the way of plot; it comes down to whether or not people choose to believe him, and what John chooses to do, having seen how modern people react to his secret. I’ve heard that this was originally written as a play (although I can’t verify; the fact that it actually was put on as a play in 2012 makes research on this matter difficult), which would explain a lot, what with the single set, preference for wide shots, and mostly dialogue-driven story. If you’re looking for impressive cinematography, look elsewhere. The camera stays out of the way and tries to avoid anything too complex. The small budget also means there aren’t likely to be many familiar faces among the cast, probably the most well known being John Billingsley (who was Doctor Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise). While they do a decent job for the most part, there are still a few moments where it shows, mostly with Richard Riehle’s Will Gruber getting a little over the top at times.
And yet, with all that said, there’s still a rich core of an interesting idea being fully explored, fascinating enough that viewers of a certain kind will be glued to the screen, mulling over every line and leaving them with something to think about for hours afterwards. It’s not quite an arthouse film; there’s nothing inherently experimental or unconventional going on here, and in some ways it’s almost too conventional. But it is, and almost certainly was always intended to be, a cult film in the truest sense of the term: a film that appeals to a small but devoted audience, determined to get the most out of the film.