Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is pondering what it would mean to live forever. Would Social Security last that long?
"My friend is a caveman, or a liar, or a nut."
Since humans are, well, mortal, the idea of immortal beings has long fascinated us—or at least those of us who explore issues through science fiction. H. Rider Haggard's She isn't just a pulpy adventure; it's a contemplation of what it would mean to live forever.
Jerome Bixby is among the writers who contemplated the question. Among his television credits were the "Mirror, Mirror" episode of Star Trek and the "It's a Good Life" episode of The Twilight Zone.
Bixby wrote The Man From Earth "on his deathbed," as the movie's producer Richard Schenkman says. After his death in 1998, Bixby's son Emerson wanted to see his final work produced. It took nearly ten years (that's a long time for those of us who aren't immortal), but Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth finally came to life.
Facts of the Case
College professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith, CSI: Miami) is loading a truck with boxes. He's interrupted by his friends and colleagues, who have arrived at his cabin to throw him a goodbye party.
Among the artifacts of John's life are a painting that looks like a genuine unknown Van Gogh, a bow and arrow, and a late Cro-Magnon flint tool. One of the guests comments that John doesn't seem to have aged in the decade he's been on the faculty.
"What if a man from the upper paleolithic survived until the present day?" John asks his guests. It sounds like an idea out of a science-fiction novel, but John claims he really is 14,000 years old. He has escaped detection by moving every decade or so, about the time people start to notice that he hasn't aged since they met him.
Instead of proving the matter by taking them for a ride on his TARDIS or beheading another immortal in a swordfight, John makes his case through intellectual debate. Can he convince an audience of professors that he's 14,000 years old? And would he want to, since they might want to dissect him?
It's a familiar science-fiction concept, but usually it's got some adventure attached to it. In Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth, you just get the debate and the discussion of the implications.
If John were in the room, you'd take his story as a yarn—but it's a compelling one in David Lee Smith's hands as he talks about his wanderings and his encounters with Columbus, Buddha, and Van Gogh.
What's even more fun is watching the friends—including John Billingsley (Enterprise), Annika Peterson (Icon), William Katt (The Greatest American Hero), Richard Riehle (Office Space), and Tony Todd (Night of the Living Dead)—go from amused to concerned to believing to angry. Only one (Ellen Crawford, ER) shows no signs of being convinced, because of her unswaying faith in God.
The story takes on a definite humanistic or atheistic tone with a twist in John's tale. I respect Bixby's right to this viewpoint, although I don't share it. That said, there's something ironic in his expectation that a group of professors' faith in a colleague's claim that he's 14,000 years old would trump any previously held religious beliefs, for either the professors or the viewing audience.
The commentaries—one by producer/director Richard Schenkman and actor John Billingsley; the other by executive producer Emerson Bixby (Jerome's son) and author Gary Westfahl—echo the humanistic sentiment as they share tidbits about the low-budget production. There's some profanity and ribald humor in the Schenkman/Billingsley commentary.
Otherwise, four brief features spend about ten minutes on the production and Bixby's life. The production may have been simple, but I would have liked more bio information on the writer, especially since his name comes before the title.
The picture, shot with a Panasonic DVX-100, occasionally leaves something to be desired. There's a little bit of flaring and some grain from time to time. The sound's not bad; all that dialogue comes through loud and clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Until the big reveal, Jerome Bixby and director Richard Schenkman do a better-than-average job of creating tension and drama with one setting and people who just talk.
Whatever your beliefs, science fiction is the genre for "What if?" An Earth-shattering concept—Was there a relationship between humanity and Martian locusts (as in Quatermass and the Pit)?—can get us thinking about our own humanity.
Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth serves up quite a dilemma. It presents a charismatic philosopher who repudiates 2,000 years of Christianity, but asks to be taken on faith. The resolution's not satisfying, but could the dilemma have been Jerome Bixby's point? The finished product and the commentaries suggest otherwise, but it's another possibility to ponder.
With the heavy-handed ending, your opinion on The Man From Earth is likely to be shaped by your opinions on religion. Take that on faith.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Starz Home Entertainment
• Commentary by Producer/Director Richard Schenkman and Actor John Billingsley
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