Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Man from Earth

Think Highlander except instead of swashbuckling, lightning-storm acrobatics set to a rousing Queen chorus you've got half a dozen eggheads sitting around sipping whiskey, stroking their chins and acting incredulous.

Okay, so any similarity between the two movies may on closer inspection prove exceedingly tenuous. Still, The Man from Earth does indeed feature an immortal, and though this one has not inherited any blood of kings, he's very likely fathered a few in his 14,000-year lifespan.

I'll bet you'd take no notice of the writer Jerome Bixby (as would I not have before now) yet if his name never seems to have made the big time it's still safe to say he left his mark on pop culture with a few memorable Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes and the movies Fantastic Voyage and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. In light of this, the making of The Man from Earth gains a certain operatic charm in itself, as paraphrased off Wikipedia. After a lifetime of moderate success scribbling B-series scripts for Hollywood, a moribund SF writer who could have done better pens, on his deathbed, a final script in the thoughtful, provocative tone reminiscent of the masters of the genre. After his death, his son, brow raised defiantly against the status quo, secures production for his father's legacy under the direction of an obscure but experienced B-movie director likely aching for a legitimate project after a career of softcore porn and buddy flicks. Thus, the legend is born... or rather stillborn, but revived through the heroic efforts of its few fans who keep the dream alive through the techno-wizardry of peer-to-peer filesharing.

Well, I may be embellishing a bit but still, it reads like a libretto if I've ever heard one. Wait, have I ever heard one?

As for The Man from Earth in itself, it's worth watching. In all fairness, it lacks the kick of a true classic but nonetheless manages to bring to life the sense of wonder so crucial to SciFi, to treat with due respect the topic of intellectual honesty and the pursuit of truth. If a trusted friend and coworker confessed to you that he's a 14,000-year-old caveman, how would you react?

As I've remarked many times before, many a good SF story tends to revolve around a single dramatic speech, by convention thunderously pedantic, outlining the grand question to be addressed. Sometimes the writer will forego action scenes altogether and merely pose the speculative proposition as a polite drawing-room discussion. A nerd's definition of action. So The Man from Earth, devoid of special effects or car chases (seventy years ago when Bixby began his career it would've been a radio drama) depends heavily on its actors' ability to convey subtle shifts in curiousity, derision, indignation, incredulity or shock. The lead does well enough but is outshone by the anthropologist and biologist supporting roles playing off his incredible statements to keep the viewer's attention from drifting.

The script's weakest point is its lingering on the question of religion, on the crisis of faith (complete with swooning, I believe) which serves as the dramatic climax of the whole soiree. Instead of dedicating so much air-time to a question which should've warranted no more than a dismissive scoff at human credulity, we should've delved more into the wonders of past worlds. It feels weird saying this, as I'm normally all for giving the fundies a slap in the face, but an ideological pamphlet is not what I wanted from this story. Its basic premise promised so much more. I wanted to hear more speculation about glaciers and clay tablets and biremes and the silk road, not just the tired old fable of the preacher without a license getting nailed to a post.

Well, here's hoping whatever comes of the Kickstarteredrededed series based on the movie might actually live up to that potential. Although, if it's nothing but mealy-mouthed, conciliatory kumbayodelling in the direction of those who still doubt that myths are created by human minds, then it likely won't be worth mentioning.

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