Have you ever met someone who was 14,000 years old before? I personally haven’t, but you have to wonder just what kind of story they would have. What did they see? How did the events we read in history books actually transpire? What would the life of a man who is immortal truly be like? The Man From Earth, a 2007 film directed by Richard Schenkman, gives us that answer. The scary part? It is actually somewhat feasible.
The film stars David Lee Smith as John Oldman (cue rimshot), a professor at a small college who decides to leave his whole life behind and move far away and start all over again. Skipping out on a planned goodbye party, he is bombarded by his fellow teachers and friends at his house while he is packing. Reluctantly, he lets them in and they all converge into John’s living room and indulge in some wine. As they talk about history and whatever else ails them, John for one reason or another decides to let them in on a secret: he is not 35 as he looks, but instead he is 14,000 years old!
His friends, quite obviously, are skeptical of what he just said, but John is insistent and begins telling his life story. Soon enough, his friends are so captivated and in such disbelief, that they begin to fire questions at him, both historical and philosophical, about the past. As John answers them and continues on, his friends slowly turn from skeptical to actual believers … but is John really 14,000 years old or is he just playing a mind game with them for his own sick amusement?
The Man From Earth is a small movie, in every sense of the word. It takes place in one location for the majority of the film, and it is all dialogue. There are no special effects, or flashbacks, or anything. It is merely John explaining the past and everyone else around him trying to figure out if it is true or not. David Lee Smith does a great job as the lead, almost making me believe he is actually an immortal Cro-Magnon man. He is so calm and collected, never once freezing up or giving any tell tale signs that he may be lying; to him, it is definitely the truth. He delivers the best performance, which is how it should be considering he carries the film on his shoulders.
The rest of the cast, all eight of them, do an okay job but are overshadowed by Smith’s powerful performance. The movie, from what I have read, was shot in only a week, so the chemistry between everyone is pretty damned impressive. Tony Todd, who plays Dan, shocked me with how great he was. I’ve only seen him in genre films like Night of the Living Dead and the Candyman series, so I was unaware he could act. Lo and behold… he can.
The only weak link in the film is William Katt, who plays Art, a published history teacher with an affinity for his students. For some reason, his character is the most annoying of the bunch and the one that doesn't need to be there. He's supposedly the biggest skeptic in the room, but the rest of the cast could cover that enough to exclude him.
Unfortunately, it takes a lot of patience to sit there and watch a film with so little action. If this were the (very liberal) 1940s, it would have made a better radio drama. Thankfully, the script keeps it interesting. The last work of Jerome Bixby, a famous science fiction television writer I am frankly not familiar with, the script makes a lot of interesting arguments and points. He helps us to look at history in a different light, to maybe understand that the lineage of these times have been edited and re-edited for political and social means. Bixby’s script also deals with a subject that is so sacred (no pun intended) that not many films have the courage to tackle: modern religion.
Halfway through the film, the conversation shifts to modern religion, and more importantly, Christianity. There, that’s where it truly challenges the viewer: what if religion was nothing more than a story that branched off a simple mistake? Everything you learned growing up is the result of centuries of tampering and centuries of re-writing and it was tantamount to a fairy tale? It’s tough stuff, and for someone who believes in God (don’t look at me), that could be a dealbreaker when watching this.
As good as it was, I had some minor quibbles: the soundtrack sounds like it was done in editing software, using those generic tracks you can put in so you don’t get sued for having real songs. That, combined with its short running time, made me feel like I was watching an episode of a TV show rather than an actual film. At the same time, if it had been any longer, I would have turned it off as even I was falling victim to the boredom of watching people sit around and talk. This isn’t CSPAN, this is cinema, and no matter how interesting a subject is, if nothing happens then eventually your mind begins to wander.
The Man From Earth is a very interesting science fiction film that takes a different approach to the genre. I can see people either loving it or hating it, and no real in-between. It’s a polarizing film, that’s for sure. Me, though? I loved it, regardless of its problems, and will recommend it to anyone who likes smarter, more intellectual science fiction.