Why The Man From Earth is Freakin' Awesome

“The greatest conversation you'll ever listen to.”

You know those lists people make of “X [genre] films you missed out on” and the like? The ones that list little known but – in the eyes of the list maker – brilliant films in certain genres? Generally speaking, when I see those lists, I've either seen or at least heard of all the films on it, or it's an absolute joke of a list littered with terrible to mediocre films. Only twice has one of those lists introduced me to a film I genuinely knew nothing about and that turned out to be really, really, REALLY good. The first was a while back, when a horror list introduced me to the creepy and mind-warping Session 9 – a film I definitely recommend, by the way. The second was a couple of weeks ago, when a Sci-Fi list introduced me to a little known film from 2007, The Man From Earth.

The first thing that intrigued me was the plot line: An impromptu goodbye party for Professor John Oldman becomes a mysterious interrogation after the retiring scholar reveals to his colleagues he never ages and has walked the earth for 14,000 years. Certainly an interesting sounding premise, at least for the likes of me, but it doesn't really give anything major away. It was also based on a story of the same name by Jerome Bixby – known for the short story “It's a Good life” that was adapted into The Twilight Zone, as well as a couple of great episodes of the original Star Trek series, so I thought, why not? So I went out and found the film, and gave it a watch.

John is caught trying to slip away before his friends arrived

I can honestly say that few films have blown me away with such finesse and, importantly, intellect, than this one, and what makes it all the more impressive is how mundane the setting is; the entire film is, quite literally, one afternoon, one conversation and discussion, in (practically) one room. If someone had said to me “watch this film, it's an hour and a half conversation and is an absolute masterpiece”, I'd have looked at them like they were mad – a thought that I'm sure a few of you are having about me, right now. Believe me when I say, however, that it IS a masterpiece, and, despite it being one of the strangest and most difficult films to pitch to someone considering watching it, it is well worth the watch and I would recommend it to my dying breath.

John Oldman is a professor at a local university, and lives out on a remote cabin-like house. When the film opens, he's packing his truck to leave, but his fellow professors arrive in time to catch him, and force him to have a leaving party with them. His friends are from a variety of different backgrounds, from archaeologists, to biologists to theologists; a fact that helps really flesh out John's revelatory story and the subsequent discussion. John decides to reveal his secret to the group because they are all intellectuals from wide subjects, they are his friends and, ultimately, he's always wanted to see if people would believe him.

He doesn't look a day over 4,000

The secret is, at least superficially, simple – he was a caveman that was born 14,000 years ago, and stopped ageing when he hit his mid-30s. He has travelled the world over, seen the rise and fall of empires and societies, studied a variety of academics (at one point he reveals that he has 10 PhDs, but his oldest one was a biology degree from Oxford in the 1800s, so he jokes about being a bit behind the times). What follows his revelation is an intense, emotional and intellectual interrogation from his peers, as they try to find holes in his story, though they rapidly come to realise John has an answer for pretty much everything.

The first half of the film is where a lot of the intellectual discussion takes place, as we are guided through his past and his physiology by a variety of questions. The way the professors talk is, perhaps, pseudo-intellectual, but not only is that not really a complaint, it also actually eases the conversation somewhat, making it flow a bit more natural, and making it more accessible to non-academic. It is this first half of the film that hooked me in with it's premise and brilliant method of storytelling.

John's revelation naturally brings about a lot of tension in the group

The second half of the film is where it begins to turn more philosophical – don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of intellectual discussion going on, but the impact of the story really begins to hammer home with John's peers. Emotions run high across the board, and it's a true rollercoaster ride. There's a sequence about religion – something that does pop up from time to time throughout the film, but you'll know the sequence I mean when you see it – that I was at first apprehensive about, because I was worried it was going to degenerate into a derisive attack on religion; fortunately, it managed to maintain a tone that was respectful, whilst also being critiqued, and they played it out really well with the different characters in the room representing our own variety of emotions.

There are three things, ultimately, that really make this film outstanding: the first I've largely covered above, which is the story itself. The writing maintains a borderline genius to it throughout the whole film – and it's not uncommon for it to veer over that border. It's a thinking film, without a shadow of a doubt, and really does engage the ol' cog. The second thing is the directing; Richard Schenkman wisely resists the urge to try and liven the situation up with camera work, and instead allows each and every scene to play out naturally with simple, but elegant shots that really set the tone. He's also not afraid to just sit the camera in front of someone while they're talking and let the monologue play out in one take.

Billingsley's biologist, Harry, is one of the more open-minded members of the group

The third and final thing is the acting; make no mistake, this film is wonderfully acted. From the sublimely subdued performance of David Lee Smith as John Oldman, to the open-minded Harry, played by John Billingsley, to the raw performance of Ellen Crawford as the devout Edith, every single character is well played, and it only strengthens their performances that none of these are big name (some are half-recognisable) actors. It allows the characters to feel natural, and for none of them to outshine the others – something rare in cinema.

It's perhaps surprising that I can write so much about a film that is, essentially, an hour and a half conversation without really revealing any of the specifics outside the premise, but that in itself should be an indicator of just how awesome this film is. Watch it.

Final Score: 10/10

This has been Blacksmith, writing for The Awesome Update.

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