Monday, January 07, 2008

The Man from Earth (2007)

The Man from Earth (2007)

'The Man from Earth' is an interesting little independent film. It's a low budget science fiction drama that is essentially 90 minutes of a group of people sitting in a room and talking. Doesn't sound particularly exciting, but the film is actually quite gripping. The premise is that youthful college professor John Oldman is a man who doesn't age - he's 14,000 years old and was born a cave man. He moves from place to place regularly to prevent his secret from being found out. The film begins with John about to leave his current home when his colleagues throw him an impromptu farewell party, where after much cajoling about why he's leaving he capitulates and tells them his secret. His colleagues are incredulous, of course, and worry about John's mental condition but play along with his story and interrogate him for details. They try and poke holes in the story, but John has a reasonable response to every question they throw at him.

The film is hardly cinematic, and in many ways could just as easily have been written as a short story; there's nothing compelling about it visually, atmospherically, or in terms of performances. It is reasonably well acted though, to be fair, and much better than I expected it would be given the low budget feel it exudes. As far as storytelling goes there is no real narrative, with the whole film being one long discussion. I sound somewhat negative thus far, so let me cut to the chase. 'The Man from Earth' is a fascinating and thought provoking piece of writing that, through the device of the 14,000 year old man raises myriad interesting questions about science, history, sociology, geography, anthropology, and of course... religion. By having established a scenario where there is a room full of academics, the screenplay allows itself to easily raise intelligent questions and discussions.

John's answers relating to the past are often ones that could easily have been derived from modern science and he often deals in generalizations because 14,000 years of memory can become a blur, in the same way that even 10 or 20 years can be a blur for the average human. Thus in one sense the film is just a hook to discuss various topics and have characters present different points of view based on mankind's prevailing body of knowledge (as opposed to introducing lots of fictional 'surprises' from history that only John is privy to, though a few of those are also in there), which makes for fascinating viewing even if the discussions never get particularly deep.

From a storytelling perspective the more interesting aspects come from the different characters, each of whom has his or her own beliefs and reacts differently to John and what he tells them. Things get particularly heated at times, especially when the topic of religion crops up, and especially when John makes startling revelations about history that are not corroborated by anything in contemporary knowledge. One of the problems I had with the film were with some of these heated moments, particularly when John's friends became agitated by what he was telling them. These scenes usually felt genuine but on several occasions came across as extremely forced (like the moment where one guy pulls out a gun).

The big mystery in the film, the question of whether John is telling the truth or not, is up in the air for much of the runtime but is fortunately resolved definitively by the end in one of the film's very few emotional scenes. The answer was what I was expecting.

'The Man from Earth' is certainly an interesting minimalist film that is more thought provoking than most films blessed with budgets orders of magnitude greater. For that alone I'd say it's worth seeing. It definitely hews closer to the scientific and rational view of the world, and some of what it says will probably irritate and anger those who are strongly inclined towards opposing beliefs. That would be their loss, as this film makes for an intriguing experience.

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