The Man From Earth is set in real time. It opens with a seemingly unremarkable evening but one that soon turns out otherwise.
It begins uneventfully. Just as the sun is setting, a group of colleagues reach the home of a fellow university professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith). He’s recently quit his job and is moving out of town. As he packs away the last of his bags, all his friends want to do is spend an evening reminiscing time spent together, say their goodbyes, and maybe get an answer to a simple but curious question — when everything seems okay, why is John leaving?
As they settle down for a mellow evening of laid-back conversations, they begin to question John about his reasons for leaving. At first, they are jocular and cajoling, guessing that he is leaving for a better offer at another university.
John, however, is not too keen to give answers. He hems and haws and deflects their queries, fuelling everyone’s curiosity, until he finally blurts out that he is leaving because he’s a prehistoric caveman who has lived through most of documented history, and his present departure is part of his process where he relocates periodically before people start noticing that he does not age.
With this revelation, one senses a definitive shift in the mood and direction of the film.
The Man From Earth starts off as an easy, comfort watch set around friendly conversations.
Soon, though, it transitions into a crisp, sombre and intellectually challenging and fascinating plot.
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John’s friends are unsuspecting to begin with. Treating his revelation as his idea of a joke, they play along.
But as they challenge his declaration and seek more details, arguments and counter-arguments begin. And before they realize it, they find themselves on unexpected conversational paths traversing subjects as wide-ranging as biology, anthropology, history, geography, psychology, spiritualism, religion.
This is aided by the fact that they are a representative group of people and bring in their own specific knowledge and insights to the table, resulting in a surprisingly coherent albeit unconventional deliberation.
However, anger soon replaces intrigue.
John’s insistence on “his” truth is treated as a needlessly elaborate prank, and runs counter to all known rational boundaries.
The lines between truth and fiction blur, resulting in general confusion, discomfort and acrimony between the friends.
John’s seemingly ludicrous declaration is vague, and equally unsettling coming from someone his friends have known and liked, for so long.
So, even though the conversation continues following one logical strand after another, frustration and anger peak.
For a while, things even take a threatening turn.
But John isn’t done yet. There is a final revelation — he eventually unveils a truth (or so he says) about himself, that is too staggering to comprehend.
Speechless and unsettled, his guests fear for themselves and for John’s sanity and humanity.
Yet against all odds, the film seamlessly moves towards an unexpected but convincing closure. It leaves you with a happily tired mind.
By the end of it, you find your mind reeling with facts and theories, resisting the urge to immediately rewind.
Brilliantly written, meticulously detailed and intuitively engaging, The Man From Earth is an understated but powerful film that holds your undivided attention throughout.
An intelligently intricate, and instinctively appealing script triumphs in this strong, unassuming film.
The actors are relatable and play their parts convincingly.
David Lee Smith especially, as John Oldman, the protagonist, is subtle and skilfully restrained; he keeps you guessing as to whether he is indeed speaking the truth.
Tony Todd as Dan, an anthropologist who for most part keeps an open mind about John’s assertion, is very identifiable with his disarming calm and collected logic.
Richard Riehle as Dr Will Gruber is another noteworthy performance; a psychiatry professor who switches between the jovial teacher, the curious professional, and the angry, reluctant listener, with skilled ease.
Richard Schenkman’s direction is on point. Tension builds at the right pace.
There’s a seamless shift from light-hearted banter to sceptical discussions and indignant arguments. The transition is so realistic the drama might have easily unfolded in your own living room.
But the highlight of the film is its taut script. It is the final work of writer Jerome Bixby, who in his career wrote numerous short stories, films as well as episodes for television series like Star Trek.
Bixby is known to have developed The Man From Earth over several decades, completing it finally on his deathbed; and the effort shows.
The level of research that has gone into the writing here is rare and a testament to Bixby’s painstaking attention to detail.
Even while delving deep into areas that are usual domains of specialized sciences and fields, he keeps the language and the conversations simple enough for an amateur audience and at the same time very engaging, bringing to life a fascinating story.
The Man From Earth is storytelling at its finest. A beautiful logical flow, with each twist unpredictable, yet appropriately placed. Watching this film is like, unawarely, being pulled by a single silken thread of a spider’s web. And before you know it, you’re inside the gossamer of a beautiful story which has been so carefully and logically woven; one that is extremely believable.
Watch it alone or with a handful of people to soak it in, in absolute silence and with undivided attention. If you miss even a few seconds, you might just deprive yourself of the unforgettable journey, that this movie promises and delivers.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
By Aastha Mathur
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