I recently watched the much-lauded-on-the-Internet film The Man from Earth. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s about a Cro-Magnon man that’s immortal, has experienced history, and lives to tell about it to his unknowing friends. This movie gets praised a lot for its thought-provoking plot and effective use of its budget. While it gave me some ideas to meditate on, and I thought it was a great example of a “bottle episode”, I think it falls short in the claim of being one of the best intellectual movies. I wonder if a lot of its praise might have been due to coming at the right time at the right place. Spoilers (and unpolished opinions) below!
The premise is the most interesting part of the movie. Our caveman John Oldman might have lived for thousands of years without aging, but he’s only human. He doesn’t have perfect recall, and he wasn’t everywhere either. He has gaps in his memory, only remembering what sticks out. With modern research, he pieces together the story of his life into something that makes sense. This feels plausible enough, and it’s how most of us piece together our lives. The other characters are suspicious (both having known John’s current identity for years, and as rational professors), but also curious, since the details of John’s story overlaps with all their fields, and the mystery if they’re being bullshitted or not. The plot drives on John retelling his life story under scrutiny with his friends thinking he’s lost his marbles. What he’s saying might be true, but couldn’t anyone would paid enough attention to a textbook have been able to tell the same story? Much is hinted that if you were good at multiple disciplines, and were a quick thinker, you could emulate what John does. It’s something to think about for every fantastic story you’re told by someone who is knowledgeable in the fields they tell tall tales about.
The low-budget and how it impacts the film is well-known, but I’ll recap it here. It takes place entirely at John’s house, usually indoors. There are no clever director tricks, let alone special effects. It’s a smart choice and avoids setting any unrealistic expectations. This does mean that the movie lives and dies entirely on it’s dialogue.
The part where it gets weaker is the characters. John and Dan are portrayed as well as they could be, but sometimes their dialogue feels inorganic, like they’re trying to set up exposition for a pitch, instead of talking like friends. Many of the other characters feel like cardboard cutouts. The slightly perverted biologist, young student, and bearded psychologist feel like stock characters than contributing to the plot beyond their usual functions. In particular, the Christian woman feels like the worst stereotype of a closed-minded literalist when she’s reacts to the claim that John was Jesus. The messages about “Jesus” (our John Oldman) preaching love and tolerance are lost on her, because she can only focus on the blasphemy – real or not.
This is the part of the movie where it doesn’t feel like it’s exploring interesting possibilities and implications, even if it’s playing fast and loose with the details. Instead, it feels like it’s getting potshots at a caricature of the religious. It’s disappointing because the movie is focused on the debate if someone like John could exist, or simply accepting it could all be a lie and rolling with it, and how it affects them. Such a concept and the reaction to it from everyone is what the movie is all about, and otherwise does well at. On the topic of religion, it shows some promise with John’s disappointment with the corruption of Christianity and the bond between Jesus and the Buddha, but lets it go to use the religious lady (Do I even remember her name? Again, the characters feel like cutouts.) as a punching bag. While the characters debate on other topics, it feels one-sided as she goes “nope” without any further exploration than John making her cringe further. You can argue this is the point of the character: someone who doesn’t believe John at all and has an anchor for why. It still feels like a missed opportunity to debate about the merits, comparisons, or influence of religion, to instead go after a strawman. I’m not religious, but it feels like a cheap attack that lessens the movie and its desire to be an intellectual film.
This ties in with the movie being at the right place, right time. The movie was popularized by piracy, something acknowledged and appreciated by the filmmakers, running counter to Hollywood’s usual narrative. This gave it an audience with the kind people who discovered movies through the Internet. At the time, the atheist/”rationalist’ movement was gaining steam. I have to wonder if the lauding about “one of the most intellectual sci-fi films of all time” was due to it being many people’s first exposure to an ideas-first movie, and resonating with many young atheists.
The twist at the end was John revealing to someone privately amount the identities he had, after letting the group believe it was just a story. The psychologist overhears this and realizes one of those names was his father, and dies of a heart attack soon later. He heads off into his next identity, bringing his seemingly girlfriend with him. It feels a little cliché; I personally would have preferred it remain ambiguous. It’d have been more befitting of the rest of the movie. Many writers have the temptation to tell you everything, but good writers know when it’s better left a mystery.
While The Man from Earth might come up short on the hype, it still made me think when it was at its best, and it makes the most of what it is otherwise – a no-budget movie working with an idea and running with it. It’s still worth a watch if you set your expectations right.