The Man From Earth: A Profoundly Provocative Portrait of Mortality

The great Roger Ebert once said that lest we “go to the movies” in one way or the other, our minds would rot away, and I couldn’t agree more.  Often times the monotony of everyday existence makes our life feel so bland and empty that we feel our minds withering away.  Cinema, however has the power to lift you off that tedium; making us think, introspect, contemplate, and feel alive again. And The Man From Earth is a perfect example; it might be a movie you have never heard of before, and I didn’t too, until the day I saw it.

I caught The Man From Earth one lazy evening on cable television. It had this very strange title and the opening credits were just rolling in and I decided I had nothing better to do. And boy….. that is not a decision I have regretted. A science fiction drama set in a closed space with a few colleagues having a conversation – that’s the whole movie for you. It might sound very boring, but trust me when I tell you, it is one of the most interesting 90 minutes I’ve ever spent. Why? Well, let’s take a closer look.

How would you react If your good friend and co-worker of 10 years makes a startling revelation one evening over a bottle of Johnny Walker that he is a 14000-year-old caveman? Yeah, you read it correctly – that’s basically the whole plot for you. John Oldman is a tenured university professor who mysteriously resigns his job and decides to leave town, surprising his colleagues and friends, who come over to give him a farewell and coax him into revealing why he was leaving. It is an incredibly intriguing premise, where we have a group of very knowledgeable and intelligent intellectuals who are confronted with a something so inexplicably preposterous and yet they try to make sense out of it.

There is something about movies in an enclosed space that never fail to amaze me – Sydney Lumet’s ’12 Angry Men’ is a great example of a dialogue driven movie set in a single room where people just sit and talk. And the same goes for ‘The Man From Earth’ – the movie wastes very little time to get going and we are immediately put amidst the drama. It’s brilliant how nonchalantly John reveals his big secret – without drama or hype; he just casually mentions that he is a cro-magnon who has lived over 100 centuries without aging. And after the initial shock wears off, his colleagues join in on the game they think he is playing and try to refute his claims. So many of our movies nowadays are infested by idiocy and pointless conflicts, that it was extremely refreshing to see people having intelligent scientific discussions. Sure, most of them are factually incorrect and based on false premises, but what matters is that it feels very authentic and real.

The ridiculousness of John’s assertions would have easily made the whole premise nonsensical, but Director Richard Schenkman intelligently puts him together with some of the most capable men and women who can refute his claims. Who better to contest someone claiming to be an early man than a biologist, an anthropologist, a historian and a psychologist among others. And while the whole thing begins as a game, John has an answer to every question; he has a rebuttal to every argument and soon, just like his friends, we start thinking – what if he is telling the truth, as unbelievable as it may sound. It’s an immensely gratifying intellectual exercise that we go through, as we slowly start believing in John and what he says. Maybe it’s a game; maybe it’s a cruel joke he is playing on his friends; or maybe it’s a sci-fi novel he’s working on – ultimately, it didn’t matter because whatever it was, I was hooked.

‘The Man From Earth’ is not a technically impressive movie; everything from the cinematography to the editing and the directing is very bland and uninspiring. But, what is impressive is the screenplay, written by Jerome Bixby, the famous screenwriter known for his work in ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Star Trek’. And with ‘The Man From Earth’, Bixby crafts a flawed but amazingly detailed and invigorating sci-fi drama that has a brilliant core to it that is endlessly fascinating and imaginative. Bixby not only wants to entertain us, he also makes subtle yet thought-provoking philosophical and theological references that play over in our minds long after the movie is over.

Despite working within a very conventional narrative, the movie is one of the very first ones I had seen that resonated with my ideologies of faith and science. This was before I had discovered the magic of the great cinema-philosophers like Malick, Kubrick, Bergman and Tarkovsky, but to be fair, this is not a movie that attempts to rival these auteurs. Bixby explores the fraught relationship between faith and science and its inevitable impact on human existence; he offers a very humanist interpretation of the foundations of modern religion while strongly repudiating the suppression of freedom and humanity by these same institutions in the modern world.

‘The Man From Earth’, despite its conventional structure and straightforward narrative can be interpreted and experienced on multiple levels. I, for one, saw it as a dying man’s fantasy brought to life; a man who couldn’t reconcile to his inevitable mortality naively fantasizing about his immortality. I have always been fascinated with the idea death and ‘The Man From Earth’ made a lasting impression on me and left me pondering whether I would be happy and content in John’s place. Great cinema always manages to hold onto your psyche and ‘The Man From Earth’ has remained etched in my brain as I continue to find it fascinating even after multiple viewings.

Sure, the movie is not without flaws; the direction is weak, the ending is rushed, and the acting is nothing to write home about. But sometimes, some movies emotionally resonate with you and then their flaws just fade away. ‘The Man From Earth’ is one of those for me, and I can only hope that everyone will enjoy it as much as I did. And if you didn’t, let us know why in the comments.

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