May 21, 2010
A Short Story with Epic Sweep
The Man from Earth is one of the best indie films you’ve likely never heard of. It’s about a college professor named John Oldman (David Lee Smith). After ten years of teaching, John has decided to move on because he’s starting to get “cabin fever.” At a going away party in his half-empty house, some of John’s colleagues begin prodding him to disclose the reason for his departure—something he’s notably quiet about. He eventually caves, and reveals a startling truth: he’s actually a 14,000 year old Cro-Magnon.
Naturally, everyone assumes this is the start of an elaborate yarn. His audience, which consists of an anthropologist, a biologist, a psychologist, an art professor, etc., decides to play along, and they begin asking him questions that he answers with succinct clarity and hitherto unforeseen observations about history. As things progress, it’s clear that he’s dead serious. The group is split—some are hostile toward what they believe is a juvenile prank, while others are fascinated (and obviously beginning to accept his “story” as fact).
I want so badly to reveal the twists and turns of this brilliantly plotted piece of science fiction, but doing so would ruin the mesmerizing effect of watching this for the first time. And that’s part of why The Man from Earth works so well: it fully immerses you in its story. You’ll find yourself waiting for a flashback to cut into the “fireplace setting”—which, of course, is perfectly conducive to storytelling— but it never happens. This is a good thing, because before you know it you’re actually in John’s cabin, waiting for the next big unveiling (“big” is the understatement of the year—there are some monumental twists in this one that’ll leave you scrambling to keep up). The juxtaposition of such an absurdly epic premise and a rural, what some might call “cozy,” setting/presentation causes The Man from Earth to develop in much the same way the very best short stories do.
The only issue I have with the film is that the directing is extraordinarily subpar. At times, it looks like a shoddily edited student film. This can be distracting, but the magnitude of the narrative is so overwhelming that it matters little. Currently, this is available through Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature. If you’re the sort of person who prefers heady sci-fi and can deal with a single-setting movie, you will be glad that you devoted 87 minutes of your life to this overlooked example of how a solid story can go a very, very long way.
out of 5
Check out a trailer for The Man from Earth: