Sunday, November 25, 2007

Review of The Man from Earth 

There's a new direct-to-DVD SF film called The Man from Earth that's currently in heavy rotation on the agency-supplied banner ads that run on Locus Online -- e.g. on the Links Portal page. The DVD is only $17 or so from Amazon, so I ordered a copy and watched it the other night.

The script is reputedly the last written by Jerome Bixby, who's most famous for the short story "It's a Good Life" and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone adaptation thereof. Bixby also wrote or co-wrote several Star Trek TOS scripts, notably "Mirror, Mirror" and "Requiem for Methuselah".

To quick-cut to my take on the film: it's a decent little film, best seen as a play that happens to have been filmed -- it's a lot of talk, and mostly set inside a single room -- and the SFnal premise is identical to the secret-immortal theme of that TOS episode "Requiem for Methuselah".

That premise is revealed in the first few minutes of this film, so I hardly need spoiler warnings to give it away. The film opens as a college professor named John Oldman (!) is packing to leave his rural house (it's filmed at a house on the backside of Vasquez Rocks, a distinctive formation in the hills north of L.A. that has been used for any number of western and skiffy films and TV shows over the years, among them Star Trek episodes "Arena" and "The Alternative Factor"), intending to "move on" from his 10-year stint at a local college, where it's been noticed he's hardly aged a day since he first arrived. As he packs, a carload of his friends from the college arrive to see him off. These include some familiar acting faces: John Billingsley, Dr. Phlox from the ST series Enterprise; an aged William Katt, from series The Greatest American Hero back in the early '80s; and most effectively, Ellen Crawford, a familiar character actress from any number of TV shows over the decades.

His friends wonder exactly *why* he's moving on, and so John, at first hypothetically, then seriously, outs himself as a Cro-Magnon who's survived for 14,000 years, living various lives and moving on as time has required. His friends can hardly believe him, but as John relates details of his past lives in impressive detail, his friends become convinced enough to be personally affected -- the anthropologist played by Tony Todd challenging his thesis; Biblical literalist Edith (Ellen Crawford) profoundly offended by his most startling claim of a role he played in history.

Their reaction to his claims plays out over the almost hour and a half of the film, with surprising developments about that startling claim, and a relationship John has to one of his challengers.

But it's all talk -- don't come to this expecting a typical SF film with special effects. As a play, it's talky in the way a Rod Serling script is talky, and mostly effective in exploring its theme, not that any experienced SF reader will be surprised by any of the talk here -- just as with the characters who are friends of John, the theme is explored in an entirely naive way, as if encountered for the first time. Directorially, the actors play their characters distinctively but not always in a realistic manner; John Billingsley's character burbles and Tony Todd's utters profundities too quickly, as if the pace of the film is rushed to come in at a reasonable time. Of the lot, Ellen Crawford is most effective as a character whose world-view is profoundly challenged by John's revelations.

The DVD includes several special features, about the making of the film and about Jerome Bixby, though oddly, the latter makes a point of the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" but doesn't mention at all "Requiem for Methuselah", the story whose theme prefigures the film's. There are also not one but two commentaries, including one with executive producer Emerson Bixby and SF critic and Locus Online contributor Gary Westfahl. But to listen to them requires watching the entire film over again, with the film playing in the background and hearing the commentators in the foreground for an hour and a half, and I confess that there's never been any film, no matter how much my favorite, that I've sat through to listen to a commentary. I would imagine that Westfahl, who's pretty expert about Star Trek himself and whose Biographical Encyclopedia of SF Film has this entry for Jerome Bixby with a mention at the end about this film, must have acknowledged the similarity to that Star Trek episode, but I can't say I've verified it.

In summary: An interesting, play-like film about a familiar SF idea, worth an hour and a half of your time especially if you're familiar with Bixby's work and don't come to this expecting the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood sci-fi special effects.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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