THE MAN FROM EARTH
The Man From Earth is a beautifully understated film, so much so that it seemed to sidestep cinematic release altogether and find its true audience on video/cable afterlife. A large part of this and probably the reason it did not have a high profile is because it eschews almost all the things that big successful contemporary science-fiction films involve special effects, spectacle, lavish sets and makeup and tells a conceptual story. The story is told entirely through dialogue and involves no more than a group of people sitting around a living room talking. In fact, the entire film could be staged as a one-act play without any changes to the script.
The script however is utterly fascinating. Jerome Bixby has certainly studied his prehistoric anthropology. Most unique is his perspective how David Lee Smith, instead of being a fount of wisdom about prehistory, claims that he never understood most of what happened or about himself until present-day studies. Most film treatments of immortals have fallen into the categories of either showing them bored with living forever, seeking true love or else combat across the ages. Jerome Bixby has the rare ability to think outside the box on these matters and come up with some fascinating new ways that someone standing beyond a single lifetime would look in on human history. Bixby takes the time to wonder how someone who has lived a very long time would think and view the rest of humanity. Rather than constantly having David Lee Smith as someone who witnesses and/or precipitates great historic events, Bixby has him as just one man at one place in one time who rarely understood the significance of events until the history books were written. The idea of the man who had lived the length of human history was clearly of interest to Jerome Bixby who also wrote another treatment of the idea in the Star Trek episode Requiem for Methuselah (1969).
The most fascinating scenes are when we arrive at David Lee Smiths amazing claim that he was Jesus Christ. In another film, The Man From Earth might have then gone the route of awe-filled religious revelations and miracles happening amid maximum mistily emotive effect. Far more interestingly, Jerome Bixby interprets things with a rigorously agnostic, if not atheist position, insisting that many of the divine aspects attributed to Jesus Christ were added by the Biblical writers and that he was nothing but an ordinary man who tried to incorporate some ideas from Buddhist teachings. Equally, The Man From Earth becomes not unlike films such as Stalker (1979), Man Facing Southeast (1986), Friendships Death (1987), Contact (1997) and K-PAX (2001), which are quasi-religious science-fiction films wherein the element of the fantastical hovers uncertainly between faith and mundane rationalism. Johns story sits ambiguously between whether it can be believed or is made up right up until the very last scene. (Although interestingly, when it comes to the claims about Jesus Christ, Bixby opts for an unequivocally rationalist perspective).
The only complaints about The Man From Earth might be the score. For a film that is almost exclusively dependent on dialogue, the score often seems intrusive in some of the scenes, riding over them and distracting from what is being said. Occasionally during the establishing scenes, Richard Schenkman seems awkward in the handling of some of the actors and the forcedness of their banter falls flat. Nevertheless, when the full strength of the story kicks in, The Man From Earth proves entirely captivating.