The Man From Earth Image

The Man From Earth

By Anthony Ray Bench | October 16, 2017

The Man From Earth is an almost perfect low budget indie film in that it has an incredibly intriguing premise, a great cast of actors, and almost never feels predictable. Written by prolific science fiction writer Jerome Bixby and directed by Richard Schenkman, the film tells the story of Professor John Oldman, a man ready to leave his life and friends behind under mysterious circumstances. When they confront him, he weaves an implausible tale that challenges science, religion, and perhaps his own sanity. The film keeps you guessing from beginning to end, and brilliantly avoids blatantly spoiling its mysteries. Is John simply crazy, or are his outrageous claims true? Is he what he claims to be, or is he a cruel con man playing tricks on the people who genuinely care for him? The film never provides concrete proof, and that uncertainty certainly makes it a better experience than if everything was 100% proven. The Man From Earth is kind of like if Highlander was a compelling drama without the cheese and swordplay.

“The film keeps you guessing from beginning to end, and brilliantly avoids blatantly spoiling its mysteries.”

John Oldman (played by David Lee Smith) is a fascinating character. Smith plays the part in an almost alien fashion. There’s something off about him, but he seems kind and intelligent. He claims to be immortal, a man who has lived over 14,000 years. He tells his story to Dan (played by horror icon Tony Todd), an anthropologist, biologist Harry (played by John Billingsley), an art teacher named Edith (played by Ellen Crawford), Dr. Will Gruber, the psychologist (played by Richard Riehle) and Art (played by William Kat), an archeologist. Joining the group is Sandy (played by actress Annika Peterson), a historian who also serves as John’s love interest, and Linda (played by Alexis Thorpe), a student of Art’s. The film’s script does amazing things with its stellar cast, each being authorities in different fields of science and history, but despite their attempts to find flaws in John’s story, John easily weaves around their inquiries and skepticism. As John’s story progresses, his colleague’s amusement turns to anger, and then to worry. The character of Dr. Gruber specifically becomes rather unhinged, and the ramifications of John’s alleged chronicles poke gaping holes in Edith’s staunch religious beliefs, making her obviously very upset. Again, I cannot emphasize how effective this movie is at making you guess whether or not John is lying. John is the obvious protagonist in this story, so we’re inclined to believe him, but the film provides no flashbacks and no unshakable proof. What we get are outrageous claims and things that any educated person could pull from a textbook. If things were spelled things out, The Man From Earth would be way less powerful.

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  1. JM says:

    I agree that Tony Todd *owned* this film. He was definitely my favorite part. From the extras, I understand that he was the first person to sign on and spent the most time developing his character before filming began. What amazed me is that David Lee Smith was the LAST person cast, due to someone else dropping out, but he nailed his role so well.

    Listening to the commentaries on the DVD, some of the more subtle bits are explained, especially as regards Edith and Sandy. (I can go into those if you want, but they include spoilers, so I’m leaving them out of this post.) I agree that the Gruber story was a bit much and the plot twist at the end was completely unnecessary (or could have been done much more ambiguously, which would have helped the film a lot) but remember that Jerome Bixby was, among other things, a Star Trek writer with the “stinger” twist at the end followed by a brief closing bit to end a story being the standard for that show.

    Is it a perfect film? No. There are a few plot holes and other bits that don’t work (Harry has a black belt!?), and being low budget and shot in 8 days really strained the crew’s ability to film it, but *as* a low-budget indie film, it’s among my favorites, alongside “The Way”, “The Wizard of Speed and Time” and a few others.

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