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The Man From Earth – movie review

The Man From Earth

The Man From EarthThree men and two women gather to bid farewell to a man who is leaving them without telling them where he is going or why. Dr. John Oldman is departing the college where he has taught for ten years and only reluctantly does he agree to stay and attend a farewell party with his colleagues. Over the next few hours a story unfolds that stretches from the ancient world to the new, covers religion, politics, violence, death and all of human history leading up to an unbelievable ending.

The Man From Earth is the work of Jerome Bixby (Mirror Mirror, Day of the Dove) and almost half a century after he began work on it, his screenplay The Man From Earth has been resurrected posthumously as a movie. Produced by his son, acted out by a cast tied to Star Trek and even referencing Star Trek, it is an appropriate enough tribute to Bixby whose most enduring work may have been Star Trek’s evil alternate universe in Mirror, Mirror;

The Man From Earth is a Science Fiction movie but one made on a budget and accordingly takes place entirely inside a cabin’s two rooms and the land around it. It sounds claustrophobic but it proves that you can duplicate the impact of the Twilight Zone’s stilted bottle episodes even today. The Man From Earth is certainly stagey, not only because of the confined quarters but because the dialogue and the action is very much a product of the theater, the key sources of action involve revelations about the characters and members of the cast entering and exiting the room. At one point a gun is waved around but proving Chekhov’s truism wrong (no not that Chekhov) no one gets shot with it.

Despite its confined space, The Man From Earth is a quiet intelligent piece of storytelling that is well worth seeing. In part that is because of the cast, Star Trek Enterprise’s Dr. Phlox, John Billingsley appear as a jokester biology professor not too far afield from the actor himself, Tony Todd (Captain Kurn) plays a soulful anthropologist and Richard Riehle (The Inner Light, Fair Haven, Cold Station 12) plays Dr. Will Gruber, a volatile psychiatrist with a bitter secret. David Lee Smith plays Dr. John Oldman as part philosopher, part savior and part innocent. The rest of the cast is filled out by Annika Peterson as Oldman’s colleague and girlfriend, Ellen Crawford as a rather cliched biblical literalist, William Katt as an equally cliched evocation of a mid-life crisis in progress and Alexis Thorpe as his student slash girlfriend.

If none of this sounds like Science Fiction yet, that’s because The Man From Earth is not your conventional Science Fiction movie. There are no special effects or beam outs or technological weapons of mass destruction or aliens. There is only the incredible story of a single man and the question, how prepared are you to believe in the seemingly unbelievable? That over the course of the movie is the question that the characters must face and the question that the audience faces as well. In Hollywood Science Fiction tends to mean creature features but The Man From Earth is a reminder that a Science Fiction story is primarily about the sense of awe at the vast possibilities of the universe. Stripped of special effects and a large budget, the cast of The Man From Earth are forced to maintain the suspense and the believability of the story on their own. In feebler hands, The Man From Earth might have easily become a horror story, instead it’s a testament to the potential of humanity and the human spirit.

The Man From Earth dates back to the sixties and the screenplay is dated by its fascination with a species of popularized anthropology and the Buddhist origins of Christianity but the brilliantly simple concept of the story still holds its sway until the closing revelation and the closing minute. This is not a movie recommended for those who want their Science Fiction only when it’s flavored with cyborgs and spaceships, but those who have stayed up late watching Twilight Zone marathons and reading a more thoughtful brand of Science Fiction, this is a movie well worth watching and well worth supporting.

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