The Man From Earth, in under fifty words: A group of academics gather to say goodbye to a colleague who is moving away. On this last afternoon together, he confesses that he is an immortal caveman, actually 14,000 years old.
In many ways, The Man From Earth is a lot less smart than it thinks it is. It is all too often narratively lazy, overly simplistic in characterization, and too eager to throw out academic references that show author Jerome Bixby’s work. Moreover, it tends to rely too much on the dubious charms of its lead (David Lee Smith) and on the audience’s willingness to sit through an hour and a half of people talking. At several points during the movie, I was fully prepared to write it off as another overambitious pseudo-intellectual indie.
Except that, damn, sometimes The Man from Earth is exactly as smart as it thinks it is. It asks you to consider history, memory, myth, and mortality; it looks at specialness and selfishness and community and the effects of time. It imagines the past from the perspective of the present, and that present as viewed from a far-removed vantage of someone who experienced it. Smith is, to put it charitably, stoic, but he exudes an easy charisma I wouldn’t mind seeing in a next door neighbor or high school teacher or restaurant customer, and then he takes that trust you’ve built up and uses it to whip out the loneliness and pain and humor and anger and sheer neurosis of a man who’s lived through all of history.
Because even though this is 87 minutes of people talking, it is incredibly compelling conversation. It’s a singlemindedly determined kind of intellectualism, the kind that relentlessly explores every facet of anything it considers. There’s a fascination to watching these people tear apart the human experience, and an incontrovertible allure to exploring the perspective of matter-of-fact immortality. I can’t separate that indefinable appeal of the protagonist from the attraction of his story, and I’m fairly certain that’s the point.
This is not, I should stress, the kind of movie to watch when in the mood for an action movie or romantic comedy (though there is a romance, and a fairly well done one at that), but it does not waste time or space or goodwill. It knows exactly what it wants to say and it says it – but, even though the film is under an hour and a half, it knows where to let tension lie in the scene, where to linger and breathe and chew over a particularly delectable idea. Honestly, it’s just beautifully paced and designed, with impeccable control over details and when and where they’re necessary.
Above all, this is a movie that respects its audience’s intelligence, that doesn’t pretend that there are easy answers, or any answers at all, but that encourages you to seek them out anyway. It’s aware of its own contrivances, and it gracefully accepts them and moves on to what it’s actually interested in exploring. So, yes, all of those flaws I mentioned earlier are absolutely present, but the film recognizes these as necessary evils and turns them into something you can build a story on. I’m still not sure whether The Man From Earth is brilliant, but I had a hell of a lot of fun trying to figure that out.