Archive for February 16, 2011

Jerome Bixby’s THE MAN FROM EARTH — thoughts (UPDATED)

February 16, 2011 1 comment

Having finally figured out that my Internet connection can handle Netflix’s instant streams after all, I’ve just streamed a movie that’s been sitting in my DVD queue for a long time, Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth.  Jerome Bixby was a noted SF author who wrote or co-wrote three classic Star Trek episodes, “Mirror, Mirror,” “Day of the Dove,” and “Requiem for Methuselah,” as well as the story “It’s a Good Life,” which was adapted into a famous Twilight Zone episode.  The Man from Earth was Bixby’s final work before he died, literally completed on his deathbed and filmed posthumously, and ironically it’s a return to the same premise as “Requiem for Methuselah,” the story of an immortal man who has lived down through the ages, changing identities as he went.  Although, in fact, he conceived this idea in the early ’60s, making it almost certainly the source for “Requiem.”  Fittingly, the concept endured and went through multiple lives.

But it’s a much more in-depth exploration of the premise, and yet it’s told in a very simple way.  The whole movie is a single extended conversation, without a single special effect, unless you count titles and scene dissolves.  Indeed, the first hour is an uninterrupted dialogue in real time, if slightly compressed in some respects.  It could easily work as a stage play.  And yet the ideas it explores are rich, intelligent, and far-reaching.

The occasion of the conversation is a going-away party for Dr. John Oldman (David Lee Smith), held by his professor colleagues (including Trek veterans Tony Todd, John Billingsley, and eventually Richard Riehle, among others).  When pressed about his reasons for leaving, he decides to take a chance and tell them a story of a man who was born 14,000 years ago as a Cro-Magnon and never died.  At first they think he’s proposing a science fiction story, and come up with scientific explanations for how it could be plausible.  Once that groundwork is laid, he begins telling the tale in the first person, and they realize he’s claiming it’s true.  They react in a variety of ways, from amused disbelief to non-judgmental fascination to open hostility.  But all of them are hooked, and among them they explore and debate what life would be like for an immortal man, the origins of myths, the nature of time, and eventually questions of religion — which is where it really gets heated, as John reluctantly reveals something about his past that challenges some deep-seated religious assumptions.

It’s not a perfect movie.  While most of the anthropology, history, religious scholarship, and the like underlying the story is pretty sound, there’s a glaring historical error early on when John claims that he sailed with Columbus and that people in that time actually believed the world was flat (a myth invented by Washington Irving and others centuries later as a way of ridiculing the traditional institutions of Europe and mythologizing Columbus as an Enlightenment hero).  And the event toward the end that finally provides proof of John’s tale for at least one character is very coincidental and contrived, yet still affecting.  But it’s great to see a science-fiction film that’s driven entirely by the exploration of ideas and characters rather than action and spectacle.   And most of the 80-plus-minute conversation that makes up the film is quite engaging and far-reaching in its ideas.

The film even critiques some of Bixby’s assumptions in “Requiem for Methuselah,” for instance, refuting the notion that an immortal could be any more brilliant or educated than the contemporary state of the art in the world, because he’d have to gain new understandings along with them.  And it dodges the notion that John is immune to death by violence, which actually feels implausible given that he’s lived more than twice as long as “Requiem”‘s Flint, and lived through times when death by violence, whether by predatory animals, invading hordes, or inquisitions, could be hard to avoid.  (At first, I was almost hoping John could be interpreted as a younger Flint, but his life story was too different, and both Billingsley’s and Todd’s characters made references to Star Trek as a fictional entity.)

One aspect of the story didn’t go where I was expecting, and there’s a bit of a spoiler here if you consider it a spoiler that something didn’t happen.  One of the characters was a young student, Linda, played by the sublimely gorgeous Alexis Thorpe.  There was something about the way she carried herself, her quiet poise and calm acceptance of this wild story of immortality, which — in combination with her pure, youthful features — made me suspect that she’d turn out to be a fellow immortal herself.  But I guess she really was just there to look gorgeous and ask naive questions, and what I saw in her came more from the actress’s strong presence transcending the role, and perhaps the camera’s understandable tendency to focus its attention on her (or maybe that was just my eyes).

Overall, the cast was reasonably good, particularly Tony Todd; it was interesting to see him playing a calm, easygoing, bookish professor, against his usual type.  I found Billingsley a little too broad and comical, Riehle a little too strident, and lead actor Smith a little bland, though reasonably effective.  Still, overall the ensemble did all right with the material.  I would like to see this turned into a play, though, so that other casts could have a chance to perform it.

UPDATED 2/26/11: By happenstance, I’ve learned a couple of things about this film since my original post.  One is that David Lee Smith (John) is himself one of the Star Trek veterans in the cast, having played Kes’s romantic interest Zahir in Voyager: “Darkling.”  (I found him bland there too, which may be why I didn’t remember him.)  The other is that there is apparently a stage play version of this.