Monday, September 14, 2015

Picks from Chip: The Man from Earth

Film: The Man from Earth
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the ninth in a series of twelve movies selected by Chip Lary at Tips from Chip.

I’m not allowed to take gifts from my students because it creates a conflict of interest. However, after said student graduates, I don’t see much of an issue with it. I was given a copy of The Man from Earth by a student a number of years ago and was told that I should really watch it. I just never got around to it. So when Chip put it on my list, I figured that I’d get to it this year.

Here’s the elevator pitch: A man named John Oldman (David Lee Smith) is leaving his position as a professor at a small university. A few of his friends show up to see him off and to question why he’s suddenly decided to leave. John spins a tale about his life, claiming to have lived for more than 14,000 years. John claims that he began life as a Paleolithic cave dweller, lived nomadically from tribe to tribe for centuries, spent millennia as a Sumerian, and influenced history in a number of significant ways. Meanwhile, his audience decides whether or not he is believable or has gone completely insane.

No, really. That’s it. And the audience John has for his tale is uniquely qualified to judge his story. In attendance at his farewell party are professors in fields that can specifically throw light on the veracity of his claims. There is biologist Harry (John Billingsley), anthropologist Dan (Tony Todd), historian Sandy (Annika Peterson), archaeologist Art (William Katt), and art historian Edith (Ellen Crawford). Partway into the film as John takes a break from his story, Art contacts another colleague, bringing psychiatrist Will Gruber (Richard Riehle) into the mix as well. And for reasons that seem to be merely to establish his character as the sort of professor who has affairs with his students, Art the archaeologist has brought along Linda (Alexis Thorpe), one of his students.

What makes John’s story so frustrating from the point of view of his guests is that it lacks the sort of specifics that they’re looking for to confirm the whole thing. He’s not sure geographically where he was born or where he moved to. He can’t be certain of the various locations he lived for millennia because there was no written history. He has no artifacts from his distant past. And yet for each of these apparent problems with his story, he has a plausible answer that makes more sense than if he had been able to produce the knowledge or memories he is asked to produce.

Eventually, and almost as would be expected in a conversation like this, the topic turns to religion. John gives his opinions and things become tense between him and Edith, who is a biblical literalist and a devout Christian. That, and the probing from Will are the main points of contention here beyond everyone simply trying to find places to poke holes in John’s story. In a large sense, this film could be called My Dinner with Caveman.

The Man from Earth was made without much of a budget and with actors who are recognizable without necessarily being household names. I’m always happy to see Tony Todd getting work, and it’s nice to see William Katt as well. This is the sort of film that actors seem to take to demonstrate their dedication to the craft. I’m guessing pretty much everyone was paid scale for this, and did it because the script was good and interesting and worth doing. It’s an obvious labor of love rather than something made to generate a ton of money.

With a film like this, essentially a long conversation, the script has to be good. The characters have to be intelligent and worth listening to for us to care at all. Of course, John gets all the good lines, but there moments of real humanity the peek through. We discover that Sandy is in love with John and has been for almost his entire 10 years at the college, and this is slowly taken into account with the rest of the dialogue. Edith’s religious convictions come out naturally in the course of the conversation, not through some unnecessary bit of exposition. It’s as finely crafted a script as I’ve seen in some time, because for the lack of action and reliance simply on watching people talk, it never once becomes boring. It helps that with a running time of 87 minutes, it also never becomes oppressive and ends right when it should.

The Man from Earth probably isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year. It may not be the best movie I’ve seen in the last three months. It is, however, one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year or any year. There are huge questions that come into play with this story, and Jerome Bixby’s screenplay (the last of his storied career) is smart enough to give us partial answers that end up creating more questions.

I recommend this film without reservation, provided you can watch a film that doesn’t have explosions, decapitations, or sex. If you’re fine with watching a long and interesting conversation about heady topics, this is a film not to miss. The Man from Earth is an unqualified win. Chip, you’re 8.5 for 9.

Why to watch The Man from Earth: A unique story expertly told.
Why not to watch: It’s really just a 90 minute conversation.


  1. Believe it or not, this was a Netflix recommendation way back when I first joined the site. I'm sure I would have come across it eventually, but I got to see it early on because of that.

    I love the story in this, and it really is all about the story. Like you said, it raises a lot of questions and things that really make you think. This was one of two DVDs I had from Netflix that day. I watched this and loved it. I watched the other because I wanted to be able to put both DVDs back in the mail the next day, but then I did something I've only ever rarely done - I watched Man from Earth again the same evening.

    I loaned it to a friend and he loved it, too. He also said that he watched it with his teenage son and the two of them talked about the movie for 45 minutes after it got over. It was probably the longest unbroken conversation he had had with his son in a year.

    What would you ask a man to get proof he had been alive 14,000 years? I love the question and comeback that went something like "Where were you in 1350?" "Where were you on this date last year?"

    Here is my review, if you are interested:

    You know what? It's probably been more than a year since I last saw this. I may take it down off the shelf this evening and watch it again.

    1. It's just more proof that what many of us really want from our movies is stories we find compelling. Effects and flashy stuff is all well and good, but it's nothing if the story behind that flash isn't worth seeing. This tells an interesting story, and that's the only thing we need to make the whole movie worth seeing. No flashy CGI or explosions are needed.

      Sadly, most film companies won't realize this. What's sadder is that a large percentage of the movie-going public seems to think thta explosions and special effects are a story.

  2. Lots of connections to Star Trek there.

    John Billingsley played Phlox on Enterprise and Tony Todd is well known for playing Worf's brother Kurn as well as an adult Jake Sisko. Of course, Jerome Bixby wrote the classic original series episode, "Mirror, Mirror" and three others.


    1. There's an overt reference to Trek in the film at the end. That had to be made tongue in cheek.