The Man From Earth, directed by Richard Schenkman from an original script by the great Jerome Bixby, begins on an inauspicious note. The dialogue in the opening scene sounds post-dubbed, the visuals look dull, and the lines are delivered in a flat monotone. The always dependable Tony Todd, John Billingsley and William Katt are present, however, helping to maintain interest until the startling premise is revealed: What if a caveman, born 14,000 years ago, somehow survived to the modern day?
John (David Lee Smith), a college professor, has suddenly announced that he will be leaving his position and moving away. His closest friends and colleagues gather to say goodbye, wondering why he would leave so unexpectedly after 10 years — not to mention give up his coveted tenure. He gently insists that it’s a private matter, that it is his nature to start over every so often, but they persist in their questioning. In response, he proposes a science fiction story, imagining what would happen to a man who stopped aging sometime in the Cro-Magnon Period, remaining alive for no apparent rhyme or reason. And then he indicates that he is, in fact, that man.
The highly-intelligent group is stunned into silence. An extended debate quickly ensues, however, with reactions ranging from immediate dismissal to intellectual curiousity. His story can neither be proved or disproved, but that doesn’t sit well with anybody. John spins a fantastic yarn that sounds like it came straight from the history books — or out of hard-fought personal experience.
What is most remarkable about The Man From Earth is the spirited discussion among friends that covers well-traveled concepts and ideas, such as immortality and religion, yet is explored from fresh and lively angles. You may think you’ve seen every possible permutation and could never be surprised on these topics again, and then Bixby yanks the proverbial rug out through outrageous, thoroughly logical means.
Once John warms up, his initial diffidence makes sense, making Smith’s performance ring true and authentic. With greater opportunities than they’ve had in recent memory, Todd, Katt, and Billingsley add richly to the debate, while the less familiar but no less talented Ellen Crawford, Annika Peterson, and Alexis Thorpe fit right in. Richard Riehle has a wonderful turn as a latecomer with a key role to play in the discussion.
There’s nothing especially cinematic about The Man From Earth. Director Schenckman, whose films include the vaguely memorable The Pompatus of Love, doesn’t do anything special with his camerawork or framing. And, unfortunately, the picture looks as though it was shot on the least impressive home video format available. The DVD transfer looks notably rough, suggesting that the source material wasn’t much to begin with.
No matter. The ideas are what count, and Bixby’s script, expanded from an episode he wrote for Star Trek and reportedly dictated from his deathbed, is splendid. And, considering that the action takes place almost entirely within one room, Schenckman keeps the walls from closing in. In the end, The Man From Earth is the kind of thought-provoking science fiction that proves the best special effects are the ones inside your head.
(The Man From Earth is available on DVD. Two audio commentaries are included, as well as about 12 minutes of behind the scenes footage and interviews spread out over four “making of” features.)