March 18, 2008
“What if a man from the upper Paleolithic had survived until the present day?”
Plot Summary: At a farewell party, a retiring college professor tells his friends and colleagues that he’s 14,000 years old.
Jerome Bixby was a respected science fiction writer best known for the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” and the great Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good life.” The Man from Earth, literally finished on Bixby’s deathbed, was his last completed work. Eschewing the usual genre trappings like futuristic gadgetry, alien spaceships and special effects, Schenkman remains faithful to Bixby’s vision by turning his script of ideas into something akin to a feature length Twilight Zone episode. The film takes place almost entirely inside a rustic cabin where a group of university professors has repaired to bid farewell to a friend and colleague, John (David Lee Smith), who after ten years of teaching has mysteriously decided to pack up and leave. When pressed about his reasons for leaving so suddenly, John becomes agitated and appears to change the subject by asking a provocative question: “What if a man from the upper Paleolithic had survived until the present day?” At first his colleagues play along with the “what if” question with amusement but the mood changes to incredulity when John claims to be a 14,000 year old caveman. Among the professors are an anthropologist, an archeologist, a physicist, a biologist and a psychologist, which conveniently ensures that all the relevant issues are discussed and all the pertinent questions asked, yet none of these learned scholars is able to poke holes in John’s story; he has convincing responses to all of their queries.
The challenge for the actors, which include new generation Star Trek alums John Billingsley and Tony Todd, was to convincingly voice the philosophical ideas within the script without sounding like mere mouthpieces for Bixby, and they rise to the occasion, which is pretty impressive when you consider they had only one week to rehearse and one week to shoot. Although the dialogue is not always dramatically compelling, particularly when it lapses into pedantic history lessons about the Paleolithic period or quick lectures on cellular regeneration, at least the discussions sound reasonably plausible coming from a group of knowledgeable scholars. The film’s best performance belongs to David Lee Smith, who brings a remote melancholy to the role of John, poignantly suggesting the emotional defense mechanisms he’s had to erect as a bulwark against 14,000 years worth of personal loss and grief. On the other hand, living for 14,000 years also has its benefits, such as meeting famous historical figures, and John is nothing if not an unabashed namedropper, claiming to have known Buddha, Columbus and Van Gogh. But that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling revelation he lays on them about a certain well-known Biblical figure - namely that he was none other than Jesus! However, this is by no means the Second Coming, for this Messiah is here neither to judge nor to save, but to debunk - himself! Specifically, John debunks the Resurrection - the cornerstone of the Christian religion - by providing an alternative naturalistic explanation, one that provocatively demonstrates how myth tends to arise alongside of (and eventually supplant) the truth.
Schenkman had his own challenge: how do you make compelling cinema out of a dialogue-driven, one-set chamber piece? For inspiration he watched Sidney Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men, a one-set drama that effortlessly overcomes its potential staginess through a brilliant use of tight close-ups and expressive camerawork, which creates an intensely claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere. Although Schenkman’s direction is nowhere near the level of Lumet’s, he manages to generate some genuine tension through similar techniques, though much of the credit also has to do with Bixby’s taut script, which keeps you wondering along with the characters whether John is certifiable, is pulling a hoax, or really is 14,000 years old. Alas, the film tosses in a last-minute twist, which is one twist too many: it turns out that John is the long-lost father of one of the characters, whose tearful, melodramatic reaction to this revelation makes for the film’s phoniest and most risible scene. Nevertheless, despite this and other flaws the film is well worth seeing as an intelligent, thought-provoking and refreshing alternative to the mindless CGI-heavy blockbusters that clog the multiplexes.