Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth (2007) Blu-ray Review: Science Fiction Chamber Play

Ten years after it was a sleeper sci-fi hit, Man from Earth comes visually restored to Blu-ray.
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A man is confronted by his friends after he walks out on his going-away party. He's been a local professor for 10 years, but tells them that he does this: after a while, he just moves on. He needs to. "You can't have done it too often, you're too young," one of them says. Well... that may not be strictly true. Because John Oldman is a very old man indeed. 14,000 years old, and he leaves places when it becomes too obvious that he's not like everybody else.

Released in 2007, The Man From Earth is a rare thing in 21st century cinema: a science fiction movie that is about ideas, not spectacle. In fact, if there's one thing The Man From Earth absolutely lacks, it's spectacle. It was shot almost entirely in one room with a few trips out to the front porch and one short scene at the end of the road leading to the remote house. Almost all of the action is conversation. John's friends invite themselves to his house for a final goodbye, and against his better judgment he decides to tell them the truth: he was born in the Paleolithic era, and simple has not died. And since he's a college professor, and most of his friends are, too, they don't immediately dismiss the idea or get defensive about its outlandishness. They talk it through, without ever once conceding that John might be telling the truth. Each of the friends takes a different tack: the jokey biologist (John Billinsgley) conjectures as to how John could physically live that long, while the historian (William Katt) and anthropologist (Tony Todd, in a rare non-horror performance) pick his brain about everything he's seen, looking for a crack in the story.

They try to trip him up about facts and figures. Is he a Cro-Magnon? Yes, John says, but he didn't know it until anthropologists gave it a name, because he didn't experience his past life as historical events. They happened to him, or around him, and much of what he knows about the eras in which he lived has come retrospectively. Smartly, the screenplay doesn't turn John into a Forrest Gump or Zelig-style fly on the wall of history, with a couple of fun exceptions (and an enormous one that kicks the movie in its third act, and very cleverly raises the stakes on John's story.)

The easiest shorthand for describing The Man From Earth might be to call it an extended Twilight Zone episode. Which makes sense, because the screenplay has a Twilight Zone pedigree behind it. It comes from Jerome Bixby, an old-time science fiction writer whose short story formed the basis of one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, "It's a Good Life", where Bill Mumy plays a little boy who controls an entire town, and sends anybody he doesn't like "into the cornfields". Bixby was also a writer on the original Star Trek series, creating the famous "Mirror, Mirror" episode, and "Requiem for Methuselah", which also featured an earth-man who was immortal. 

The Man From Earth was the last script he ever wrote - literally, he was on his death bed when he dictated rewrites to his son, Emerson Bixby. That son eventually produced this film, a process the eventually took a decade after his father died. While there were early production attempts to make the film "bigger", Richard Schenkman stuck to the original vision, and largely stays out of the way to let the actors do their work.

As is inevitable from the premise, this is a very talky film. It is almost all talk, but it is deeply committed to its idea: John is completely open, completely non-strident and yet, has an answer for every question. "Where were you in 1493?" the increasingly angry Edith asks. "Where were you a year ago on this date?" John replies, and of course she doesn't know. He isn't a super-man, and though intelligent no genius. He has 10 degrees "including all of yours", he tells his professor friends, but he got his biology degree in the 19th century. Like any normal human, he just can't keep up with everything. Eventually another guest arrives, a professor of psychology, who has very real powers to commit John to an asylum if he believes he is insane.

The Man From Earth doesn't hit every note just right. Alexis Thorpe plays the latest student lover of William Kat's biology professor, and she's there to represent youthful innocence, but her dialogue comes across as just being far stupider than a college girl should be. As questions about John's connection with history move toward his surprising connection to religion (including a key role in the Bible), Edith becomes strident in a way that seems very unprofessorial.

It's not an exceptionally beautifully shot movie, but considering its origins (shot on MiniDV, which is definitely not high-definition) it looks fine, without distracting camera work. This release notes that the film has been upconverted and color corrected into HD, and if the shots of the film in the legacy bonus material is an accurate indication, this is the best the film has ever looked. It was shot on location in the valleys north of Los Angeles, and includes the famous Vasquez Rocks in the background - those being the very rocks by which Captain Kirk fought the Gorn.

The Man From Earth is a rare, small science fiction film that deserves to be seen, and this Blu-ray is undoubtedly the best quality version of it commercially available. Like any movie of ideas, there are things discussed here that I don't agree with, but it's a refreshing change from movies where barely a hint a theme exists, let alone ideas to wrestle with. It's talky but not slow, intelligent but largely without pretense. It sets out to do a very specific thing, and does it extremely well.

Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth has been released on a dual pack Blu-ray and DVD by MVD Visual. It's an elaborate package for such a small movie, containing several extras from previous releases and some brand new ones. Chief amongst the new is a comprehensive feature-length documentary, The Man From Earth: Legacy, which goes over all aspects of the film from conception to production to the film's surprising after-life as a stage production, with interviews with nearly all the actors and creative personnel. The disc also has two commentary tracks (both of which were, I believe, recorded for the initial release though they are not dated on the disc) with the director and actor John Billingsley, and with Emerson Bixby and sci-fi scholar Gary Westfahl. The former commentary is lively and fun and expansive, talking about the production and the themes of the film, while the latter goes into more detail about Jerome Bixby and the conception of the film. There are a number of short (between two and four minutes) featurettes from the film's initial release, and a number of trailers for both this film and the soon to be released sequel, The Man From Earth: Holocene.

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