“The Man from Earth” - Richard Schenkman (2007)

The Man From Earth (2007) is a science-fiction fantasy directed by Richard Schenkman and based on a short story by noted sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby, famous for his earlier work for the original Star Trek and The Twilight Zone television shows. The film focuses on an otherwise ordinary man who claims to be 14,000 years old and on the degree to which his close associates are wiling to believe him when they are apprised of his claim.

Although I would say the film is science fiction, the low-budget production really only consists of a lengthy discussion about the claim between the principal character and his friends.   If the main character’s claim is false – and we only have suggestive evidence that it is anything but false – then the story is simply about gullibility. 

The action of the film takes place entirely at the home of Professor John Oldman, who has just resigned from his tenured position at a university and is about to depart the area for good.  As he is loading up his pickup truck before departure, he is visited by colleagues from the university who have come over to organize and impromptu good-bye party.  So virtually the entire cast of the film is made up of the following people:
  • John Oldman (David Lee Smith), the retiring philosophy professor
  • Dan (Tony Todd), an anthropology professor
  • Harry (John Billingsley), a biology professor
  • Edith (Ellen Crawford), an art history professor
  • Sandy (Annika Peterson), a historian who is in love with Oldman
  • Art Jenkins (William Katt), an archeology professor
  • Linda Murphy (Alexis Thorpe), Katt’s student
  • Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), a psychiatrist
The questions on the minds of Oldman’s friends are why is he, a successful academic for the past ten years and a man expected to be the next department head, leaving his job? Where he is going?  And, what he is now going to do with his life?  Oldman just smiles, and when pressed only gives evasive answers.

Finally Oldman decides to lay it out to them. He tells them that he is a Cro-Magnon man who was born 14,000 years ago. He says that he aged normally until he was about 35, and then he abruptly ceased aging. His cells were perfectly able to reproduce themselves, such that they always repaired all wounds and left no scarring. Since then he has always changed his address and identity after living somewhere for about ten years, because people would begin to become suspicious as to why he didn’t age along with everybody else.

The first roughly half of this long conversation covers Oldman’s responses to the probing questions of the disbelieving academics.  Biologist Harry concedes that perfect cell reproduction is theoretically possible.  Dan, the anthropology professor, is open-minded. But Art, the archeologist, is suspicious and suspects that whole thing is a put-on. 

When asked questions about history and anthropology, Oldman concedes that he doesn’t know everything that happened in various historical periods or why.  He says he is just an ordinary man with the limited horizon accorded to all of us and was just aware of what was going on around him. During each age of man in which he lived, he tells them, he was aware of the wisdom of the time, but no more.

The academics in attendance feel they must be open to unusual information and that they must supply an evidence-based refutation of his claims, but they all come up short.  So some of them, particularly Dan and Harry, are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of argument. 

As the conversation continues, Oldman reveals some further implausible aspects of his past.  This is where the story veers over to issues of human cultural history. Oldman clams that he was personally acquainted with the Babylonian king, Hammurabi. Not only that – he knew Christopher Columbus, and the artist Vincent Van Gogh personally gave him one of his paintings. But these revelations are trivial compared to what follows. Oldman says that he was a disciple of Gautama Buddha and that he, himself, later was Jesus of Nazareth.  He tells them that he is actually agnostic and makes no claims of personal divinity – the whole Jesus, the Son of God, thing was all just one great big misunderstanding. In explanation for this major screw-up, he tells his friends rather modestly that when a few hundred years after Buddha’s death he tried to pass on the Buddha’s teachings in the Middle East, his message was misconstrued by his disciples and wrongly made into a new religion.  This “revelation” goes down very badly with Edith, the art historian, who also happens to be a literalist Christian. But what could have been an interesting philosophical discourse turns out to be mostly huffy posturing on the part of the gathered academics.

This is all a little bit too much to take for the assemblage at hand, and psychiatrist Will Gruber sternly warns Oldman that he can have him committed to an insane asylum if he doesn’t confess that his whole story is a hoax.  Oldman surveys the room and sees that though he is viewed as a madman, he is in fact surrounded by a psychological neurotics, foremost of whom is the psychiatrist Gruber, himself. So Oldman shrugs and confesses that it was all just a put-on job to see if he could get a rise out of people. The visitors then take their leave, mostly with their feathers still quite ruffled. At the film’s close, though, we are given some evidence that essentially confirms Oldman’s story: he knows some things that he could not have otherwise known unless he had been alive at an earlier time.

On the whole, The Man from Earth has some interesting aspects to it, but the film falls short in several key areas.  Perhaps the first difficulty is that the film is just one long conversation.  Now you might point out to me that Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is mostly conversation. True, but there are actually many conversations in The Idiot, as well as several dramatic events in the tale.  Anyway, The Idiot works as written fiction, but it has proven difficult to transfer to the screen. A further problem with The Man from Earth is that the spoken discourse suffers from being overly schematic and artificial.  Many of the comments are contrived and unmotivated, and the overall effect is considerably worsened by the overacting on the part of the cast of visitors.  It comes across as an attempt to evoke academic one-liners, but it is all just too artificial.  The exception to these histrionics is David Lee Smith, as Oldman, but his laid-back, dispassionate composure has the reverse problem of being almost enervating for a story that must rely on discourse to move it along.

Another problem concerns the implausibility of Oldman’s long-term survival, even if I allow for the sci-fi fantasy possibility of his not aging and his improbable encounters with remarkable men.  Most humans in the prehistoric period did not die of old age; instead they died because of starvation, violence, accidents, and infectious diseases.  It seems to me that it would be extremely unlikely for an ordinary person, as Oldman claims to be, to have survived these other causes of death over the hundreds of generations that he is supposed to have lived.

OK, so the film is implausible and talky, but what about the intellectual content?  Is there something interesting there to hold onto? There is some, but there are mostly missed opportunities.  One interesting subject would have been the nature of time, itself, but this was not explored in the film. Time and memory would probably have a quite different structure for Oldman, given his long-term experiences, and this film could have been occasion for an examination of that topic. 

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