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Man from Earth, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/21/07 12:04:56

"A genre legend's last great work."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

One quiet night, as his friends gather to share their goodbyes to him, John offers up a delicious conundrum: let’s say a man - a caveman, really - managed to survive for 14,000 years, never dying. What would he be like today? John’s friends, professors and academics from a nearby college, enjoy the puzzle and the countless questions it creates. What about his biology would help him live so long? How far back could his memories go before they cloud up? How much knowledge could such a man gather over thousands of lifetimes? How many relationships must he deny himself in order to keep his past a secret?

Ah, but what if John’s question wasn’t a question at all? After all, he did have something important he wanted to tell his friends before he moved along in life. Is John implying that he is the 14,000 year old man? (A play, perhaps, on his own last name, Oldman?)

Such is the glorious riddle of “The Man from Earth,” a low-key, no-frills drama, the last work from the late, great Jerome Bixby, best known to sci-fi fans as the author of such seminal genre works as “Mirror, Mirror” (one of the most popular episodes of the original “Star Trek”), “It’s a Good Life” (a key “Twilight Zone” tale), and the film “Fantastic Voyage.” Here, everything comes off like a filmed stage play, with every inch of drama unfolding almost entirely from dialogue alone - imagine “My Dinner with Andre” reworked by sci-fi geeks. This is the story of smart people debating, hypothesizing, wondering.

There have been stories like this before - the ridiculous yet occasionally interesting “K-Pax” immediately springs to mind - but most of those offerings hit a snag when it comes time to revealing the truth. Either our hero is indeed a fantastic being, or he is insane; usually the reveal is never as exciting as the build-up, and it’s best to leave the mystery unsolved. But with “The Man from Earth,” we’re so involved in the discussion that we’d gladly accept either possibility. It’s not so much a build-up to a big twist, but a grand “what if?” roundtable discussion in which we get to play a part. The journey is every bit as exciting as the destination.

Of course, John’s so determined - and so likable - that we want desperately to believe his story. His past, real or not, is completely credible, and his rule about moving on every ten years, just as his new friends begin to realize he’s not aging, sounds probable enough. His tendency to namedrop a couple historical figures teeters on implausibility (just how many big names can one person meet, even with all that time?), but it never quite pushes our disbelief over the edge.

And when John begins to reluctantly recount how an entire modern religion is actually based on myth mixed with conjecture mixed with political necessity, we’re sucked in even more. Now we’re no longer dealing with fiction and fantasy, but legitimate history; with these scenes, Bixby challenges us to rethink how religious tales are formed.

That’s how Bixby hooks you with this story. He never lets the viewer stop thinking. The questions keep flowing, sometimes at fever pitch. (I found myself screaming internally, wondering when these characters would finally ask the questions I needed answered most - and I found myself smiling once those questions finally arrived.) You wind up putting yourself in the shoes of both John (how would you handle near-eternal life?) and his friends (how could you handle a pal telling you such things?), and this heightened sense of intellectual involvement raises the drama to grand heights.

To Bixby’s credit, he does not simply compile a list of what-ifs and toss them at us dryly. His characters are richly detailed, and underneath all the fantastic speculation, there’s a solid drama, one of old friends regretfully saying goodbye to one of their own. Bixby and director Richard Schenkman give us time to meet these characters as people before dropping the big questions in our lap, and so we get to see them as colleagues and companions, trading jokes and memories, inviting us, the audience, into their private party.

Considering the rushed production time (the project was shot in just over a week), it’s interesting to note just how well the cast works together. They do indeed feel like old friends, and their rapport is soothing.

And what a curious cast it is, filled with TV veterans and genre regulars, like Tony Todd, John Billingsley, Richard Riehle, Annika Peterson, Ellen Crawford, Alexis Thorpe, and William Katt, who looks a little too worn down from years of work in the B-movie circuit. All provide exceptional performances here, most notably Todd and Billingsley, who have the fortune of portraying the most inquisitive members of the group, and therefore get to ask all the questions you want to hear.

The real lynchpin, however, is David Lee Smith, who stars as John. He brings to the screen a calm presence that’s much needed in carrying such large-scale notions through, while underlining his every action with a hint of sorrow - 14,000 years of sadness, perhaps.

Schenkman’s direction gets in the way a few times, with a few more cramped shots and awkward angles and underlit scenes than one would like, although the limited shooting space and tight schedule account for most of the film’s hiccups. But what Schenkman lacks in visual finesse, he makes up for in a keen sense of pacing that lets the characters soar and the dialogue breathe.

With all its restraints, “The Man from Earth” is a gloriously unusual genre entry - no effects, no action, no cheap thrills. All the conflict is internal, all the drama intellectual. It’s that rare film that rewards inquisitiveness.

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