Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Movies: THE MAN FROM EARTH starring David Lee Smith.

It's Tuesday again and that means Overlooked Films Day at Todd Mason's blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to take a look at what other overlooked films and other A/V material, other bloggers are talking about today. Link.

Louis Malle's 1981 film, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE was basically a plot-less tale of two men in a restaurant having a long conversation. It was a critical sensation once upon a time. I watched it then with a bemused attitude, sure I was on the cutting edge of something or other simply by viewing the film.

Imagine: 90 minutes of two men talking about life.

Actually it was surprisingly interesting and I stayed through till the end.

So what does that have to do with my current Overlooked Film choice? Well, THE MAN FROM EARTH is a 2007 movie from the pen of short story writer and Star Trek and Twilight Zone alumnus, Jerome Bixby. It is basically a story with a strong premise and little else but the intriguing conversation of a few friends at a mountain cabin.

The camera stays inside that cabin for most of the story though it is definitely a science fiction tale. Despite the movie poster, there are no special effects, no explosions, no space ships, no computer generated graphics.

The only razzle dazzle is the implausible main idea of the story. The resulting conversation and the one incredible reveal (followed by another nearer the end) is razzle dazzle enough for me.

I have a tolerance for long snatches of conversation in movies if it's about something that piques my interest. I just don't mind listening and using my imagination. But if you prefer sci-fi with lots of visual movement and mind-bending special effects, THE MAN FROM EARTH is not for you.

The cast of unknown actors is adequate, no one really stands out. (They're unknowns for a reason.) All are mainly television actors with generic looks. They're not terrible, it's just that it's easy to see how, with a cast equal to the material, the film could have been a powerhouse. It's a shame really. But then, you can't have everything.

This is one film in which the script is so damn good, you won't really mind the less than brilliant acting.

Here's the plot:

John Oldman (his name is kind of an 'in' joke) is a man in his thirties, a professor at a western university. At the beginning of the film, he's informed the school and his friends that he's moving on after having spent a few years on the teaching staff.

The group of friends gather at John's cabin in the woods for a farewell party. John is leaving in the morning, off for parts unknown. Of course, his friends are still trying to get him to stay, especially since the only reason he will give them is that it's time for him to move on.

During that evening's  drinks and conversation, John finally offers them the incredible explanation he'd been holding back. He must move on because he cannot age nor can he die. He is an immortal. While he remains the same, everyone around him will begin to change and grow old. The eventuality is that they would soon notice he looks the same as the day he arrived on campus years before. To prevent that revelation, John simply picks a time to move on.

He has spent the centuries, moving from place to place, country to country, always living under assumed identities. John has been on earth for 14,000 years. He has no clue why he is the way he is and how he got that way. All he knows is that he exists.

Though they like and trust him, John's friends are all hard-nosed realists, professors of various sciences. They immediately think John is carrying out some sort of practical joke. They kid him about it, then they interrogate him for details, determined to turn it all into an intellectual exercise. Seeing as how John won't admit it's a joke, they indulge him his eccentricity of the evening. It makes for very stimulating conversation.

Only one of the group believes him, a young woman, an assistant professor who obviously has hopes for some sort of relationship with John. (This is the main weakness in the script, but it's not deadly.) The casting of this woman is particularly inept since she looks more like a runway model than anything else.

You'd think a guy who's been alive for 14,000 years would not be making googly eyes at a fashion model, but, hey, nobody's perfect. Not even an immortal.

So that's basically the plot. The more these people talk amongst themselves, the more they try to trip up John, the more he digs in and answers them truthfully. Until the one moment when his story takes on a very unsettling turn and he makes a startling revelation.

One of the older professors, a deeply religious woman, is outraged by John's story. He sees he's gone too far, the others are genuinely upset with him, so he admits it's all a practical joke and he hopes they'll forgive him for his odd sense of humor.

They all laugh about it, still a bit uneasy, but determined to accept John's explanation. It's time to call it a night.

As they're leaving though, yet another professor, an older man who'd been the most unbelieving of the lot, makes a life altering discovery when John lets slip one of the names he's lived under in the past.

This is a film basically about ideas. Ideas put forth in conversation rather than in scene shifting visuals. Ideas you'll want to talk about.

It's a movie that grabbed my imagination.

To read more about the movie and the full cast and to watch the trailer, please use this link.

To learn about screenwriter and author, Jerome Bixby, please go here. 

THE MAN FROM EARTH is currently available for streaming at Netflix.


  1. The Man From Earth. Complete opposite movie to the one I saw today, In Time, (Justin Timberlake - I wanted to say JustinTime, then) and Amanda Seyfried. Here, the conversation was limted, (rationed) to stilted one line pieces of dialouge, not very well put together. After reading your review and in comparison, I think I would have better enjoyed The Man From Earth.

  2. I saw this sometime last year. I was surprised by it entirely. I got a lot of religious overtones from it and I was convinced it was an allegory. I recently saw a ghost movie that had the same effect: THE PRESENCE. You might like it. It's a very differnet type of ghost movie with no gore and its intent is not to scare.

  3. Dave: No one converses much in movies anymore, I suppose. People don't seem to have the attention span. It's a shame.

    Yes, I think you might enjoy THE MAN FROM EARTH.

  4. John, thanks for the tip on THE PRESENCE. I'll take a look.

    Yes, the religous overtones surprised me as well. But it made a lot of sense in the context of the story. It was a great script.

  5. It would be interesting to know whether or not there's a greater acceptance of a conversation-movie in conjunction with advent of reality TV. Personally, I've always enjoyed eavesdropping on conversations!

  6. Yvette,

    I must second almost everything you said about this film. I knew nothing about it when I rented it and didn't know what to expect when I played it. I was amazed when the film ended to find that I had sat there transfixed by a group of people sitting around debating whether the host was who he said he was.

    No car chases, no exploding buildings, no gun-battles no spaceships and weird looking aliens--just talk.

    However I must disagree with your comments about the actors. First, I'm glad that they decided not to go with a high-powered cast, for that would have distracted me.

    Second, it was a fantastic script, but it needed a very good cast, even if unknowns, to make it go. Even Shakespeare comes across uninteresting and tiring with a poor cast.

    The combination of a marvelous script and great acting made the film work, in spite of the film being mostly talking heads.

    By the way, it's back in my queue for another viewing, and that happens very rarely.

  7. Mark: Me too. I like a movie that has conversation instead of one-liners.

    I don't watch any reality TV. Is there much conversation going on there?

  8. I didn't hate the acting, Fred, I just thought it was a bit too mannered, too much like soap opera acting. But that's just me. I still enjoyed the movie and was, as you say, transfixed.

    This is a movie that only a few of us have heard of or seen and really, it does deserve a much wider audience.

    This is maybe the sort of movie you could build a seminar around or certainly, have a great conversation about. :)

  9. It's a pity more people don't know it was Bixby (and not, say, Rod Serling, or these days THE SIMPSONS' writers) who came up with "It's a *Good* Life--" and even more how few people have read his work (or realize how much good work he did even in his brief stints as an editor in the early '50s, at PLANET STORIES, GALAXY and as at least the fanzine reviewer at the Thrilling Group). Haven't seen this yet, but it's been waiting for me for a bit...

  10. I hadn't heard of this film before now. I like Richard Riehle as a character actor in movies and TV series. Like you, Yvette, I don't mind long conversations in movies if they're interesting...and if I can grasp them. But I can do without monotonic dialogues that you normally find in a Woody Allen film. Everyone's talking and talking and no one's listening.

  11. Oh Todd, if you love Bixby's work, then you can't miss this film.

  12. Prashant: In many Woody Allen movies people talk a lot but don't really say anything. At least, not anything very interesting. It's just chatter.

    In this film, the talk is VERY interesting abd leading somewhere. It's talk that makes the viewer think.

  13. I haven't come across this one Yvette, thanks (I'm not even sure it's available in the UK actually ...). Always partial to versions of the Gilgamesh myth so I'll have to see how to get hold of it.

    If, talking a leaf out of your book (sic) and I wanted to include a Forgotten Movie for Todd, how does one contact him? I can't find an email address on his site? It's probably because I use Wordpress and you guys are on eBlogger or some such, but I;m stumped, so thanks for any advice. :)

  14. It's definitely worth looking for, Sergio. Good luck. You don't get Netflix in the UK? Just wondering...

    I can't find Todd's email address, I seem to have accidentally deleted a couple of his messages to me. But I think if you just leave a comment about wanting to participate on Tuesday's Overlooked Films his blog, he'll respond. Can't remember how I initially got included...

  15. We don't have Netflix but we do have LoveFilm, which is now owned by Amazon - and I just put it on my rental lisr, thanks!

    I shall leave a post on Todd's page and see what happens - thanks.

  16. I hope you'll let me know, Sergio, how or if you liked the film. :)

    Good luck with Todd. I don't think you'll have any problem joining in.

  17. Yvette,

    I think the film could be a great learning experience for most of today's directors who seem to believe that a film must be filled with car chases, exploding buildings, shootouts and the like.

    I've seen interviews with George Lucas in which he stated that he hated films with a lot of discussion among the characters and whenever he had to cut something, it was the discussion parts that went first.

    It's too bad, for he showed great promise of being an extraordinary director in his early days. Now he's just a good director of action films with lots of special effects that have a minimal plot and flat characterization.

  18. I'll tell you what I think, Fred. I think that George Lucas got seduced by the whole idea of computer graphics. I think he can't see anything now except in terms of the razzle dazzle. Too bad.

    As you say, he had promise.

    A terrific film to get a good discussion started in a classroom. Though parents would probably be horrified. :)


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