Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review: Man From Earth

Jerome Bixby isn't as well known a science fiction writer as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, but he was more influential than most people realise.  If you've ever seen the Twilight Zone, the original Star TrekFantastic Voyage, or even It! The Terror From Beyond Space, then you've seen Bixby's work.  And if you regard someone wearing a goatee as evidence that they are an evil doppelganger from another dimension, then you have Bixby to thank for that.

Man From Earth (2007) was Bixby's last screenplay that he began working on in the early 1960's and completed on his deathbed in 1998.  Shopped around Hollywood by his son Emerson, it was eventually filmed by director Richard Schenkman for a budget of only $200,000.

Not surprisingly, this is not a film of action and special effects.  It's more of an old-fashioned television play that remains mainly on one set and relies heavily on dialogue to move the plot along. In fact, a stage version is available that is, as far as I can tell, nearly identical to the shooting script.

The premise is a simple one.   A group of academics throw a surprise going away party for a young professor named John Oldman who is inexplicably abandoning his career and moving away.  When confronted with this question, Oldman reveals that he is, in fact, a 14,000-year old Cro Magnon who somehow became immortal and who must now move every ten years to keep his secret safe.

Needless to say, Oldman's friends refuse to believe him and he has no proof to support his claim, but against their better judgment they are drawn into Oldman's story.  Soon they are using their specialist knowledge to pick holes in his narrative and find themselves faced with the question of whether he is lying, insane, or really a caveman who has survived into the present day.

Man From Earth is an intriguing story that strives to be one of emotions and ideas.  It tries to deal with the big issues of life, death, and religion to the point where it often lapses into a round-table discussion suitable for late night on Channel 4.  However, Schenkman keeps the emotional ball in play and the plot avoids becoming overly dry.

Where Bixby stumbles is when he falls for the Hollywood clich√© of thinking that in order to be serious one must bash religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is at this point that Man From Earth becomes predictable and pedestrian as it trots out anti-Christian arguments that didn't fly in the 2nd century and today seem merely glib.  Apparently, Christ was actually John Oldman trying to introduce Buddhism to the Jews and when he seemingly came back from the dead it caused the Apostles to start running off in a whirlwind of myth making like the cast of Life of Brian.  It's an idea, but the "Jesus survived the Crucifixion" wheeze is so old that it would have made St. Jerome send back a form letter in reply.  It could work as a premise, but Bixby needed to do his homework better.

Personally, I think that if Bixby really wanted people to question their beliefs and start some fresh discussion, he should have had Oldman say, "Yup, I was there.  Saw Him leave the tomb and was at the Ascension.  Good times." And then watch the secularists do a paradigm shift without a clutch.

This isn't helped by the introduction of a "Christian literalist" who doesn't believe in angels or miracles, but can be relied upon to say "sacrilege" and "blasphemy" at the drop of a prayer book.  She comes across as an old-fashioned character as do all the others.  The idea of a group of academics as a serious, enlightened jury to weigh the case of an alleged immortal caveman may have flown in 1960, but today, when the dirty laundry of so-called scholars is on display for all to see, it comes very close to comic.  From my own experience in the faculty common room, I'd say that instead of a heated, yet sympathetic discourse, a real gathering of soft scientists in such circumstances would quickly degenerate into blustering, back biting, territory grabbing, egomania, special pleading, political bigotry, and out and out whining leavened with the intellectual rigour that is normally associated with a nursery school riot.

Overall, Man From Earth is a refreshing film that requires attention and patience, but this is rewarded with a genteel and ultimately entertaining story capped by a twist that neatly resolves the conflict. At 90 minutes, it is too long for it's premise.  I can't help thinking that if Bixby had finished his screenplay in 1960, Rod Serling would have taken it and turned it into a taut classic of 24 minutes with far greater dramatic impact.

An immortal Rod Serling; now there's a premise for a film.

Originally posted on Ephemeral Isle.

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