Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: The Man From Earth

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Man From Earth (aka Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth)
Directed by Richard Schenkman
Falling Sky Entertainment / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 2007 / 2018

The Man From Earth, which was released a decade ago, is a cult film with a very subtle touch. It is essentially an ensemble cast sitting around at a cabin in the woods and discussing how one of them, named John Oldman (David Lee Smith, who looks a bit like Jon Hamm, known from CSI: Miami), is a 14,000 year old Forrest Gump (as opposed to a 2,000 year old Mel Brooks), who has managed to be involved in some key historical moments.

Like My Dinner With Andre (1981), it relies more on the content of conversation than on physical action. It is deep and philosophical, and that’s what is intriguing about it. It garnered enough favor that a sequel has been release ten years after the fact, and it was this release which the Blu-ray cover announced, but upon opening the disc itself was the original 2007 film. That gives me the chance to catch up.

Both these films share the same director and some of the cast. Jerome Bixby, the writer of the first film, died in 1998 before the release of the original; Bixby was infamous among some circles for writing the likes of It! Terror From Beyond Space (1958; Alien is obviously based on this), one of the most infamous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (“It’s a Good Life” in 1961, in which 5-year-old Billy Mumy has the ultimate power of life and death), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and a quartet of episodes of the original “Star Trek” (including oft referenced “Mirror, Mirror”).

David Lee Smith
There is a lot of dialog to digest among these eight characters as they ponder the possibility of a “caveman” still being alive after all these millennia. There are a few points that I think pushes the boundary of credulity – even in these circumstances for sheer historical coincidences (hence the Forrest Gump mention) – but still makes for interesting ideas. Though I can certainly see theologians getting upset with some of the topics, it’s nicely thought provoking. Certainly it can create some nice after-the-film dinner conversations.

Part of what makes this worthy of a watch is that all but one of the characters – including Oldman (no, not Gary) – is a university professor, and yet the discussion never descends into what I (and others) call academia-speak. While it doesn’t talk down to the audience, it certainly is accessible yet remains provocative.

John approaches this group with his can a person live 14,000 years premise very early on, so I’m not giving anything away by stating this, but at the same time, the discussion both ranges and rages along for the rest of the film, for which I will not give spoilers. Topics include history, the rise of social constructs, geology, genealogy, theory and religion, of course. Like I said, this is heavy in volume of words, and because nearly all of it takes place either in or just outside a somewhat isolated cabin in California, this has been made into a stage play more than once (perhaps The Man From Earth: The Musical!?).

Luckily, this is a pretty damn solid cast that holds credibility. Funny thing is, some of them have been in one form of “Star Trek” or another, and the filming site just beyond the cabin is where Kirk fought the Gorn (Alligator guy), though not in an episode written by Bixby. It was also the set to the cable show, “Big Love.” But I digress…

Tony Todd
As I was saying, there is some mighty talented actors here, including the Candyman himself, Tony Todd, who plays an anthropologist named Dan; I actually think he does the best acting job among some huge talent. Also standing out is William Katt as archeologist Art, best known for the show “Greatest American Hero,” the male lead in Carrie (1976), and I particularly liked him in the television production of Pippen: His Life and Times (1981; yeah, I like musicals, so shoot me). He plays an angry professor with a soul patch that obviously has some issues with his own aging, and who doesn’t like his ideas challenged; he also creepily brings along his much younger girlfriend/student, Linda (Alexis Thorpe). Others are an art history theologian prof, Edith (Ellen Crawford, who you might remember as an RN in “E.R.”), psychologist Will (easily recognizable character actor Richard Riehle), the snarky Harry (John Billingsley, also easily identifiable from “Star Trek: Enterprise,” though I will always remember him for the 2000 series, “The Others”), and historian Sandy (Annika Petersen). As I said, a strong ensemble. With this much dialog, it would have to be, or fail.

While I might have a quibble or two, especially about the said historical coincidences, considering how much talking goes on in a very small space, I feel it’s well written because in 87 minutes, I never once got bored. Okay, I acknowledge I’m a bit of a history / science / sociology nerd, but it goes beyond that. It’s a border-line Sci-Fi story without aliens, space crafts, computers, or even electricity, yet touches on Sci-Fi themes more through the temporal and the spatial aspects of the story.

William Katt and Alexis Thorpe
My biggest issue with the film deals with the nature of modern technology. For example, If John Oldman keeps changing his jobs and names every decade, how does he get the high-power professor jobs without an SSN (Social Security Number), a CV with no references, and what about taxes? In modern culture, it is impossible to be a professor without a relatively recent degree from a reputable university, and earning one in the 19 Century does not count as “recent.” He would have to be published… a lot… especially if he’s “walking away from a tenured position.” It isn’t like one could just go to and find a prof position. And unlike the previous 14,000 years, people are now easily tracked by computers (even in 1998 when it was written, never mind 2007 when it was filmed). I’m married to a prof, and have my own higher degree in Media Theory, so I know. As much as I enjoyed the film, and I really did, I had trouble getting over this piece of modernity.

John Billingsley and Annika Peterson
There are lots of extras. To start off is a full length commentary with director Schenkman and actor Billingsley. It’s a mostly interesting mix of mythology, anecdotes and technical goo-gah. Schenkman takes us through all of that, and Billingsley, playing a Loki (original myth, not comic) trickster, seems to be there to trip him up through distractions with bad jokes. While it keeps it from getting boring, it also feels a bit chaotic. I’m glad I listened (with the captions on), but it took a bit of patience. Then there’s a second commentary with executive producer Emerson Bixby and Sci-Fi scholar Gary Westfahl. Emerson is Jerome’s son, and he had a strong hand in the writing of the film, so it’s not just second-hand information. I have to say I wish every commentary was like this one: informative without just being a series of data, or full of snarky remarks. The topics covered, which include Jerome’s work on the likes of “Star Trek” resonate throughout. Emerson was also involved in the shooting as Jerome had already passed on by that time, so there are also backstage anecdotes. This commentary was top-notch.

There are 21 different languages options, not counting the second English (for Hard of Hearing) selections. But so far, this is only the beginning of the extras, as most Blu-rays tend to be swamped with them: Next is the 88-minute documentary from 2017, “The Man From Earth: Legacy.” It starts with how the story and script was created, then how the cast was assembled, that is mixed with interviews with six of the eight actors and the director (all and more who get to express opinions and tell stories throughout the documentary). Further on there was filming stories, the sound, the music composition, and then the pre-release at a Comic Con. The last third of the doc is about how the film became popular through piracy, with both practical and theoretical positives and negatives about that. I have trepidations about Making Ofs that are nearly as lengthy as the main feature, or in this case a minute longer. Seems like hitting an ant with a sledgehammer, but that’s just me. There’s definitely some repetition that could have been excised here, but it’s interesting to watch, once.

Ellen Crawford and Richard Riehle
The rest of the extras are period pieces from around when the film was shot. “From Script to Screen,” is a behind the scenes period featurette that lasts 2:10. For the 3:50 “Star Trek: Jerome Bixby’s Sci-fi Legacy,” again, three of the actors had been on “Trek” before, for which they and other cast members discuss the importance of “Trek” (and “Twilight Zone”) in their lives. “On the Set,” which lasts 4:00, is more of the same behind-the-scenes with interviews. The 2:10 “Story of the Story” is on-set interviews with the cast discussing what the story posits.

Following is the original 2007 trailer, two trailers for the sequel, a photo gallery, and a 4:54 Restoration Demo showing the differences between the pre-HD original was remastered for the 2017 re-release on Blu-ray.

Last up is a micro-short film (30 seconds) called “Contagion” that was produced by Schenkman and Wilkinson, and stars William Katt that is just the right amount of gross. It looks like it was made for the 2017 release, though I can’t find it on IMDB.

The Man From Earth is a very strong looking film. Again, a tight space with a relatively large cast for its size, it never gets too claustrophobic. Plus the lighting, editing, camera shots all work to the higher final product. All these elements make it the cult sensation it became. Perhaps at some point I will get the chance to see the sequel. I’ll let ya know.

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