The Man From Earth
As a writer on the original series of Star Trek, on The Twilight Zone and on Fantastic Voyage, Jerome Bixby’s credentials as a science-fiction writer are well established, and not just in the genre’s futuristic space travel genre. Based on a script by the late author, The Man From Earth has neither aliens nor spaceships, but it adheres firmly to the underlying principle of science-fiction as a genre of ideas. Essentially, it regards human behaviour with an outside alien eye in order to ask fundamental questions about the way we live and the society we have built up around us. And what better way to question the principles by which we live today than by asking, “what if…?”.
What if a Cro-Magnon man from the Upper Palaeolithic era was still around today, having witnessed the growth of humanity from its very origins to its place in the world 140 centuries later? That is the situation put forward by Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth as a means to looking with a fresh eye on many of the assumptions and beliefs we have today based on our current understanding of science, history and religion. It’s these disciplines that are turned on their heads when University Professor John Oldman unexpectedly tells his colleagues that he has decided to leave his post and move on. Astonished, hurt and disappointed by his decision, which seems to have no logic, Oldman not even having accepted another position, his friends press him on the reasons for his departure. Reluctantly, John decides to tell them the truth, something he has never told anyone before. Every ten years he is forced to move on because it starts becoming noticeable that he doesn’t age. In fact, he’s been around on the earth for 14,000 years…
The idea is initially treated with ridicule from the other members of the teaching staff who have gathered at his cabin to see him off, but intrigued by the intellectual challenge the idea presents and going along with the idea out of curiosity to see where it leads, they push John further into revealing what he has experienced over the millennia. Oldman certainly knows his facts, but they are things that anyone would know from textbooks and the anecdotal stories he provides can neither be proved nor disproved. And this essentially is where the attraction of The Man From Earth, like all the best science-fiction, lies - in the intellectual exercise of imagining the world as a very different place from the one we know, and thereby causing us to question whether we even really know and understand the world we live in today.
Certainly then, The Man From Earth is nothing new, the idea of immortality lies within mythology and forms the basis for everything from the Wandering Jew to the Vampire, while and the incredible journey of humanity from its cave-man origins to enlightenment is more imaginatively and concisely expressed in the famous jump-cut of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man comes to mind in John’s demystification of religion as someone who claims he actually witnessed and participated in the events in question first-hand. And like Moorcock’s novel, the debunking of religion and scientific thought in The Man From Earth is certainly equally controversial.
The intent however is not to shock, but to show us that beliefs we take for granted and accept as truths may not necessarily be so. That we only know as much as our modern society has grown to accept, and that even the most intelligent people on earth don’t like having their beliefs challenged, and don’t necessarily want to know the truth. In doing so, The Man From Earth challenges not only Religion and Creationism, but also History and Darwinism, warning us never to rest on easy assumptions and comfortable ideas that support our preconceived beliefs, but to remain open-minded and tolerant. As the disbelief and even anger expressed by the majority of John Oldman’s colleagues show however, the author has little faith that humanity is ready or willing to embrace such values.
As a science-fiction idea, it’s a strong one that has the potential to be a classic in the mould of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Cinematically, there is certainly the potential to develop The Man From Earth into a great adventure in the manner of film adaptations of Wells’ work, but that is not taken advantage of in the screenplay, which inevitably is limited further by its low-budget nature as an independent film project. Indeed Bixby’s story, set almost entirely in a single room where the listeners to the incredible tale are gathered around a fire on a couple of sofas, could just as easily have been told to a lot of Victorian men sitting around in a drawing room in London. Bixby’s drawing room scene however has a nice little observation, its gathering of the modern-day University Professors around the fire suggesting a connection with the cave-men around a fire.
It’s a simple image that makes an effective point that shows all the hallmarks of what in all other respects is a perfect short-story, if not the great cinema of a Kubrick-style visual exploration of ideas. Coming from a writer of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone however, The Man From Earth does have a tendency to be a little too narratively neat and smug for its own good, falling into the same trap as its protagonists of believing it knows and can explain everything, wrapping it up neatly into a packaged little episode and leaving not much that is really challenging or ambiguous. But that’s a minor quibble, and even if isn’t particularly cinematic or imaginatively presented on the screen, The Man From Earth remains a fascinating and intelligent little story, whose ideas should hold you spellbound for the length of the film and perhaps beyond.
The Man From Earth is released in the UK by Anchor Bay. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is Region 2 encoded.
The film is presented anamorphically at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which would appear to be the correct ratio for the film. Technically, it’s not a good transfer on the R2, though it’s about as good as it needs to be. The image appears to have been standards converted from an NTSC source, resulting in the image being slightly soft, bleeding slightly into blue-line edges, and showing what looks like interlaced frames, but which is probably just motion blurring caused by the conversion to a different frame rate. Otherwise the image copes reasonably well with the single location shoot, remaining relatively clear in bright, dark or firelit conditions.
Two audio options are provided – Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. I’m not sure that there would be any great use made of the surround track, and personally only viewed the film with the more direct stereo option. Like the video transfer, the are no great demands placed on the soundtrack, which is largely dialogue-driven, and it handles this fairly well, with only a little bit of trouble in levels conflicting in one scene with Beethoven playing loudly in the background.
There are no subtitles provided and no hard of hearing captions, which is disappointing.
Available as selections under the Audio Set-up options are two full-length commentary tracks, one an Audio Commentary with Producer/Director Richard Schenkman and actor John Billingsley, the other an Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Emerson Bixby and author and sci-fi scholar Gary Westfahl. I didn’t sample either of these personally, but they are there if commentaries are your thing and you want to explore the filmmakers’ views on the project further. Also included are four brief behind the scenes featurettes. In On The Set (3:59), director Richard Schenkman talks about the pressures of working with a low-budget and the challenges presented by the location. The Story of the Story (2:11) features each of the actors talking about the story and the questions it raises. Jerome Bixby’s Sci-Fi Legacy (3:49) reveals the connections each of the actors have with the writers other work, notably on the various series of Star Trek. From Script to Screen (2:10) looks at the choices involved in getting the movie made.
The Man From Earth doesn’t make great cinema then, and it even has limited potential as the low-budget TV-movie that it very much looks like, but the strength of Jerome Bixby’s final script is in its ideas. Despite the limitations of its setting, its message comes across loud and clear in Richard Schenkman’s film version and shouldn’t fail to engage most viewers and even profoundly challenge others. Anchor Bay’s UK DVD release unfortunately appears to have undergone a NTSC to PAL standards conversion which certainly affects the image quality, but the film itself doesn’t suffer unduly.