The Man From Earth is a science fiction blockbuster more vast than Star Wars or Avatar, encompassing the whole of human history and a vast chunk of prehistory too. It has no special effects, and it takes place entirely at a present-day mountain cabin in an American college town. It has a cast of a half-dozen people who do nothing but talk to each other.
It’s one of the most exciting movies I’ve seen.
The Man From Earth takes place during the going-away party for John Oldman, a middle-aged college professor with two mysteries in his life: Why he has chosen to abandon his promising academic career, and why he still looks so young, seemingly unaged in the decade he’s been at the same college. His closest friends at the college, a half dozen fellow professors from all different academic disciplines, have gathered together at his home to see him off.
Professor Oldman challenges them to a little game: What if he were not what he appeared to be? What if he were actually a Cro-Magnon man, who had somehow survived 14,000 years to today? Cro-Magnon was indistinguishable from human, so no one would know. He challenges his friends to pretend they are writing a science fiction story about an ageless cave-man, alive until today. How would that work?
Over time, the friends realize that John Oldman isn’t kidding. He seems to believe what he’s saying. And they start to believe it themselves.
The Man From Earth was the last work of Jerome Bixby, who was not a particularly prolific writer, but whose pop culture footprint is enormous. He wrote the “It’s a Good Life,” episode of Twilight Zone, where demon-child Billy Mumy sends mean people to the cornfield. He also wrote the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek, the original series, where Kirk & Co. get sent to a parallel universe where the Enterprise is run like a pirate ship.
I think the most wonderful thing about this movie is what it says about being human. The immortal John Oldman isn’t a king or a god or a billionaire or a vampire. As he describes his many lives, he never talks about having been any of those things. He was only one great historical figure, and met only one other. What he did with 140 centuries was become more human.
In the universe of The Man From Earth, becoming more human means becoming more kind and decent. John Oldman implies this with his words and shows this with his actions. When another character threatens Oldman’s life—and despite his long life, it’s entirely possible Oldman is as killable as anyone else—Oldman reacts by chasing the person down and apologizing for behaving in a way that caused the other person such distress.
Immortality is a recurring theme in science fiction and fantasy. It’s certainly a big part of the appeal of vampire stories. Stories about immortals appeal to young people because young people are second-class citizens because of their age. Middle-aged people have all the power and all the money, and vampire stories and other stories about immortality allow young people to fantasize about having their youth and the advantages of age too.
Immortality stories also appeal to older people, conscious of the dwindling volume of sand in the top of the hourglass, and dwindling possibilities and opportunities ahead. Larry Niven tells a story about having been confronted by an academic who smugly said he’d figured out why so many of Niven’s stories featured youthful immortals, Niven responded, “Yeah, I don’t want to get old and I don’t want to die.”
The Man From Earth is different from other movies and TV shows about immortals in that the historical action is described rather than shown. Movies like Highlander and TV like Angel and True Blood and, well, Highlander feature lavish costumed flashbacks showing us the characters living in historical times. The Man From Earth takes place entirely in less than a day, in one place, in the present. Indeed, John Oldman tells his friends, and us—
No. I won’t write that bit. It’s a spoiler. And the movie has quite a lot of story, considering all that happens is half a dozen people talk for an afternoon and a night. Well, that’s all that happens except for one character, who—
No. I won’t give that bit away either.
The characters and cast stand out. Most of the cast are veteran character actors, familiar from many TV shows and movies even if you don’t know their names.
David Lee Smith stars as John Oldman. He’s been busy with guest roles on TV but I don’t recognize him from anything. He plays John Oldman with serene dignity, decency and kindness. He’s believable as a man who has been taught patience and endurance by 14,000 years of living, and who learned to keep his distance from other people by living with a vast secret all that time.
Tony Todd plays an astronomy professor who is the first to take John Oldman seriously. He argues: Why be quick to try to figure out if the story is true? Why not just go with it and see where it ends up? He’s a man of science, but also an African-American hipster. Todd has been in a lot of movies and TV, the roles that jump out at me are the CIA director on Chuck, the adult Jake Sisko on a time travel episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a couple of other Trek roles, three episodes of Stargate: SG-1 (I’m guessing from the character name on the IMDB that he was a Goa’uld), and five episodes as a general on 24.
John Billingsley comes close to stealing the movie as a brash, loud, lewd biologist. It’s pretty much the cocky alpha nerd he often plays, and plays so well. Billingsley will be best known to the Tor.com crowd as the doctor on Enterprise. He’s also been on, well, everything.
Richard Riehle plays a distinguished psychiatrist, brought in by another character who is sure Oldman is crazy. Riehle’s character wears tweed and gravitas like armor. I completely didn’t recognize him as the same actor who played the character who gets into a car accident Office Space, even though Riehle, like Billingsley, has a very distinctive voice and appearance. Riehle has world-class wobbly jowls.
I also didn’t recognize The Greatest American Hero, William Katt. The star of the 1970s superhero TV comedy appears in The Man From Earth here as John Oldman’s mirror image, a middle-aged academic clinging to youth. He’s motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket-wearing, and long-haired, with a student girlfriend young enough to be his daughter (and more of a grownup than he is).
Ellen Crawford plays Edith, the devout Christian in the group, who suffers a crisis of faith hearing John’s story. She previously played one of the nurses on ER; she never had much of a character on that show, but if you were a fan of ER you’ll recognize her.
Annika Peterson plays Sandy, John’s girlfriend, a mortal woman with a normal physiology who has no knowledge or suspicion of John’s secret. Peterson delivers a fine performance, but her character is the weakest link in the movie. Like a million heroes’ girlfriends in a million movies, she has no identity other than the Hero’s Girlfriend, she has no thoughts, backstory, or ambitions of her own except in relation to the hero. I’d blame sexism, except Edith, the other woman character in the movie, is a three-dimensional character.
I watched The Man From Earth on my iPad, on streaming video, using the Netflix app, over Wi-Fi, on a Delta flight from Des Moines, Iowa, to San Diego. Sitting there watching a movie on my futuristic tablet, inside a steel tube hurtling through the night sky, I felt myself like a Cro-Magnon living in the future.