J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Man from Earth, Back on DVD

The protagonist of sf writer Jerome Bixby’s final screenplay is a lot like Donnie Darko. They both inspired relatively well-reviewed stage adaptations and they can arguably be considered you-know-who figures. In fact, Bixby’s John Oldman might just be you-know-who himself. If you don’t know who we mean, you can find out for yourself when the Bixby-scripted, Richard Schenkman directed The Man from Earth (trailer here) returns to home video in a special DVD/BluRay edition from MVD.

John Oldman is packing up and about to move out of town, when his friends and former fellow faculty members at a small California liberal arts college suddenly show up for an impromptu going away party. (He snuck out of the formal one). They are concerned by his hasty departure—and somewhat hurt. After a little Johnny Walker special reserve, Oldman decides to tell him his incredible story. He starts out speaking somewhat hypothetically, but quickly switches to the first person. He is in fact a late Cro-Magnon man, whose body’s regenerative capabilities have never slowed down, leaving him an immortal thirty-five-year-old (he looks forty-ish, but still pretty darn good 14,000-years-old).

Oldman has the right audience for his story, including a biologist, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an Evangelical art history scholar, another historian, and eventually a psychologist. Most of those fields Oldman took advanced degrees in, but his biologist doctorate from the Victorian era is somewhat out of date. As a teacher, Oldman was known for making the past come alive, but Oldman insists it is mainly from scholarship. He has limited dealings with great historical figures, because he always lived as an average citizen. There were some notable exceptions. That Van Gogh looking painting is of course a Van Gogh. He also studied under the Buddha and tried to spread his teaching throughout the Levant region. Right, Oldman did not want to go there, but once its out there, you can’t get that kind of toothpaste back into the tube.

Man from Earth sounds nauseatingly New Agey, but it is surprisingly compelling. Bixby literally finished the screenplay on his death bed, so it understandably has an elegiac, end-of-an-era vibe to it (and yet, a really good sequel hit the festival circuit this year). Bixby more fully explores the themes of immortality and its psychological implications that he first addressed in the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah.” Thanks to his smart writing and Schenkman’s assured hand on the helm, we never doubt Oldman’s wild yarn. The question for viewers is whether or not he can be convinced to break his pattern of hitting the reset button every ten years.

Frankly, after watching Man from Earth and the sequel, Man from Earth: Holocene within six months of each other, it leaves one rather baffled as to why David Lee Smith hasn’t become a household name. He is terrific as Oldman in both films, conveying all the nuances of a man with 14,000 years of learning, who has convinced himself to stay emotionally aloof, for the sake of anyone who might get close to him.

For genre fans, the biggest (pleasant) surprise might be how good Tony Todd is in a non-horror role: Dan, the iconoclastic anthropologist. Immediately recognizable character actor Richard Riehle also provides an indispensable assist as the head-shrinking Dr. Will Gruber. Annika Peterson develops some believable confused but still potent chemistry with Smith, as Oldman’s history department love interest. The first time around, William Katt sounds a bit strident (in the wrong way) as archaeologist Art Perkins, but Alexis Thorpe exceeds expectations as Perkins’ student hook-up along for the ride, who has a convenient habit of asking on-point questions at precisely the right time.

Granted, Man from Earth might annoy some Evangelical Christians, but for what its worth, Buddhists should be able to accept it in its entirety without troubling their faith. Ultimately, the film does not feel like it is trying to be offensive, thanks in large measure to Smith’s forgiving and philosophical tone. It is one of the rarest science fiction films that have zero special effects and are driven entirely by dialogue, which is a cool thing. It sill holds up, if you take into account the rise of the internet will eventually catch up with Oldman in the sequel. Very highly recommended, The Man from Earth is now available in a DVD/BluRay package, from MVD.

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