(Credits: Far Out / MUBI)
It is often said in the world of filmmaking that a director should embrace their limitations and find a way to tell a gripping tale without the need for extraneous bells and whistles. Steven Spielberg understood this assignment during the making of 1975’s Jaws, as did James Wan for his indie horror Saw, and the same can certainly be said for director Richard Schenkman and his curious 2007 sci-fi The Man from Earth.
A highly-rated indie movie created on a micro-budget of just $200,000, The Man From Earth, which looks like the product of the 1990s, was conceived back in the 1960s by Jerome Bixby, who inserted the concept into a humble Star Trek episode titled ‘Requiem for Methuselah’. The tale saw the adventurers of the Enterprise spaceship land on a distant planet where they encounter a man who claims to have been born thousands of years before Christ and, more complex still, says to have lived alongside such historical icons as Methuselah, Alexander the Great and Leonardo da Vinci.
He used the core of this concept to devise a full screenplay titled The Man From Earth, which he worked on for decades, only completing the project on his deathbed in 1998. Following his passing, the script was given to director Richard Schenkman, with the story having been tweaked and altered, now following John Oldman, a university professor who, before leaving town, tells his fellow friends and science experts that he is actually over 14,000 years old.
The whole setup sounds like a bad student film, and, whilst it looks like such an effort, with the colour palette changing as often as the camera quality, The Man from Earth is far more gripping than it has the right to be. Feeling a little like a deleted scene from a wayward episode of Twin Peaks where David Lynch has decided to indulge in a conversation regarding human existence, Schenkman’s film is a joyous oddity.
Set in just one location, a desolate hilltop whose inside is gutted and stacked with removal boxes, the entirety of the film takes place on two sofas, an armchair and some makeshift seats beside the fireplace. After announcing his caveman origins, he is quizzed as to the legitimacy of his claim by his friends, who just so happen to be experts in their fields of archaeology, psychology and more.
The result is something of a recreation of a gripping campfire conversation brought to life, where one can’t seem to prize themselves away from the collective debate, no matter how much one needs the toilet. Indeed, the decades of time developing the concept can be felt in the script, which is meticulously penned to make the most of the central conceit, with intellectual debate allowing for fascinating insight into the matter.
Yet, it’s quite clear that Bixby was more of a sci-fi enthusiast rather than a talented writer of dialogue, with the delicately layered conversation often being interrupted by lame jokes and awful moments of respite where attempts at characterisation are made. Harry, played by John Billingsley, is a particular oddity, being so unbearably annoying that his character was paradoxically brought to life. The same can be said for almost the entirety of the supporting cast, who each stumble so consistently through the film that, by the end, they all feel strangely authentic.
For the large majority of its runtime, The Man From Earth is a fascinating sci-fi and intriguing central hypothesis, yet it must be said that as it nears its conclusion, it gets a little ahead of itself, tipping into the world of surreal melodrama. But, even still, no matter how many times it falls on its face, Schenkman’s film manages to dust itself off.
Whether you can accept The Man From Earth at face value is entirely up to each individual viewer, but what remains undeniable is its remarkable resourcefulness, reminding modern filmmakers and audiences that all you need to make a great movie is an infatuating concept that you allow to unravel as naturally as a spellbinding conversation.