Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth is a Pinnacle of Low-Budget, Intellectual Sci-Fi.
In the 1940’s (according to Emerson Bixby), Drexel Jerome Lewis Bixby, the late short story and screenplay writer, began cultivating thoughts of a Cro-Magnon who inexplicably survived into the present day to become a history professor. The concept continued to percolate until 1998 when Bixby finished the screenplay on his deathbed. That script would be transformed into an imaginative science fiction cult film in part by his son Emerson Bixby to become Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth, which would be produced in 2007. Bixby’s name was posthumously included in the title to provide proper recognition and respect to the talented writer who died before he could see his story come to life.
A Man Who Lives Outside of Time as We Know It
The title is a play on the many extraterrestrial-focused science fiction features, such as Stanislaw Lem’s 1946 novel, The Man from Mars, the 1922 silent film by Roy William Neill by the same name, and hundreds of similar variations that have been imagined and produced since man first looked up at the stars. Bixby’s concept of a man from Earth, so different than any other surviving human that he’s essentially alien to humanity, while simultaneously being more human than most of them combined, created an incredibly unique film that won over the hearts and minds of viewers everywhere.
Debuted at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con film festival, The Man from Earth would go on to sweep up awards for Best Director, Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Sci-Fi Screenplay, Audience Favorite, and many post-DVD release awards from all over the Americas. It was particularly beloved in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, as well as all over the United States.
Micro-Budget Science Fiction
Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth had a budget of only $200,000, making it another low-budget science fiction cult film success story which gained a great deal of traffic via illegal sharing. Eric D. Wilkinson, the producer of the original film as well as its upcoming sequel, The Man from Earth: Holocene, publicly thanked BitTorrent users and other internet pirates for sharing the film, which he said gave them vastly more exposure than their “financiers” anticipated, in big part making the film the cult favorite it is today.
Though a few different sequels and spin-off series were “Kickstarted” in the last decade, none of them gained enough traction to become a reality – until now. Announced early 2016, The Man from Earth: Holocene will bring back many of the original stars, including the Cro-Magnon himself, John Oldman, played by David Lee Smith, and will add some fresh faces to the cast as well, including stars like Vanessa Williams (Carmen from Shaft), Sterling Knight (Disney channel star, Alex from 17 Again), and most importantly, Worf from the many Star Trek TV series, Michael Dorn.
Star Trek: The Next Generation introduces us to a wide array of alien life. Whether it’s returning species like the Vulcans and Klingons or one-time run-ins that either help or hinder Captain Picard and his crew, these life forms are relatively diverse, but also unconvincingly similar. But if life on Earth is any indication, the odds of running into bipedal organisms with virtually identical organs, speech mechanisms and appearances so similar to ours are exponentially low.
As a fan of low-budget intellectual sci-fi films, when I heard about the upcoming sequel I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to write a little review of the original 2007 Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth before I get the chance to interview Wilkinson, the producer.
Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth: The Review (SPOILERS!)
The film takes place entirely at the house of the protagonist, John Oldman, a professor at an unnamed university. The viewer soon finds out, as other professors trickle in, that Oldman had just run out of a goodbye party being thrown in his honor to come home and continue packing his house. Other than saying that it’s “time to move on,” Oldman gives no explanation as to why and where he’s going to his friends and colleagues of roughly a decade. The mystery begins to build as Oldman’s guests find a Van Gogh painting and a Magdalenian artifact (“It’s a fake,” and “I got it at a garage sale”), and once everyone is gathered around the fireplace, sipping Johnnie Walker Green and eating taquitos and chicken wings, Oldman launches into what he calls a science fiction story.
Surrounded on all sides by doctors pressing him for answers, including a biologist, an anthropologist, an art historian, an archaeologist, a general historian, and a psychiatrist, Oldman is eventually coerced into revealing the secret he very obviously is reluctant to tell.
“What if,” begins Oldman, “A Cro-Magnon survived to present day?”
After the initial jokes, the academics decide to play along since they have “a whole afternoon to waste,” and begin asking questions about this hypothetical immortal Cro-Magnon. Slowly it is revealed that Oldman believes that he truly is a Cro-Magnon, a caveman, who miraculously survived the past 14,000 years not visibly aging past 35. But that isn’t the craziest part.
Oldman continues his narrative after being prodded for more details, revealing that he met Buddha, traveled the world with Christopher Columbus, became friends with Van Gogh, and even became known to history as Jesus Christ himself. His colleagues (with the exception of Dan, the good-willed anthropologist [played by Tony Todd, “The Candyman” from the 1992 horror series], and the biologist, Harry [played by John Billingsley of Star Trek: Enterprise fame]) refuse to believe him so adamantly that they become angry with him.
Naysayer #1: Art the Archaeologist
Art (played by William Katt), the “too cool for school” archaeologist with a ponytail, soul patch, and leather jacket, banging his student Linda, stirs up trouble from the very start, secretly calling in reinforcements in the form of a psychiatrist to get to the root of Oldman’s supposed onset of mental illness. Other than his embodiment of what happens when burnouts grow up, Art is just another naysayer like Edith, though with different objections. He repeatedly yells, “You can read that in any textbook!” in response to any question Oldman answers about his experience living in prehistory but continues to ask questions whose answers, you guessed it, can be found in any history textbook.
Naysayer #2: Will the Psychiatrist
When the psychiatrist, Will (played by Richard Riehle), arrives, sh*t gets real. The unassuming portly old man suffering from a heart condition begins to psychoanalyze Oldman, who jokes in response, “Want me to lie on the couch, Doc?” and makes a lot of clever jokes about Freudian psychology. This continues until the pleasant dialogue takes a depressing turn, and Will begins to ask if Oldman feels guilt for possibly unconsciously stealing the lives of those around him so that they age and die and he lives on. “Will you come to my funeral?” he asks, accusingly. That line of thought reaches a crescendo when Will pretends to pull a gun on Oldman (by holding a pen in his jacket pocket), and then pulls a real gun on him shortly after. Aiming the pistol at Oldman, surrounded by his other friends and colleagues, Will grows more and more distraught as he asks what would happen if “I shoot you in the arm? Or the head?” until he storms out of the house.
As everyone breathes a sigh of relief, Dan quietly informs Oldman that Wills’ wife died the day before from a chronic illness. Hearing this, Oldman races out of the house after Will, apologizing profusely about his wife. Will accepts the apology, apologizes himself, and leaves to clear his head.
Naysayer #3: Edith the Art Historian
After Will’s departure, the conversation continues on the path of religion, which incites a flame-war between Oldman and his insufferable “friend,” Edith. Though technically an art historian, Edith proves herself to be only an incredibly annoying middle age Christian Literalist, who lashes out at Oldman repeatedly, calling him a blasphemer and a liar, among other things. To be honest, one of the most compelling reasons I could think of for writing this review is to bash on Edith. Throughout the 89 minute movie, I cursed her name probably half as many times. Like, oh my god she was awful. She would threaten to leave and I would shake my laptop screen yelling, “Do it! Just go! Leeeeaaaaave! No one likes you!” (Edith is played by Ellen Crawford, so my utter hatred for her character is technically a compliment to her acting skills, right? If not, sorry Ellen.)
Harry: I can give you the Ten Commandments in ten words: Don’t. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.
Edith gets her poor widdle feelings hurt when Oldman reveals that he’s actually Jesus, and begins to debunk the Kings James version of biblical history. She continually interrupts his story and glares at him for most of the film. In fact, though there wouldn’t be much plot advancement without them, Art and Edith were by far the worst parts of the film.
Going Too Far in the Name of Science
As the evening draws to a close, increasing the dramatic effect of the firelight illuminating the scene, Will returns after a drive to find everyone is quite sucked into Oldman’s story. (In my opinion, Dan believed almost the whole time, and Harry was the most willing to believe. The rest of them were incredibly close-minded for men and women of science.)
The conversations continue until Will decides Oldman’s story has “gone too far,” as it’s angered Art and reduced Edith to a quivering teary mess, and demands that Oldman either admit he’s lying or admit he’s mentally ill. Talk about a rock and a hard place!
To avoid being institutionalized, and after realizing his companions weren’t mentally prepared for that level of honesty, he “comes clean,” brushing the whole thing aside as a bad joke. He spends the next minute or so playing a sociopathic liar to drive the point home, and everyone seems to buy it and leaves with the exception of the historian, Sandy (who’s in love with Oldman but doesn’t have any important lines) and Linda, Art’s little pet grad student. As she follows the disgruntled Art outside, Linda stops and turns, saying, “Your name’s a pun, isn’t it? Old-Man?” clarifying that she did believe his story after all.
Now, we could debate the term “massive” all day long, but I’m talking about movies that cost more to make than most of us earn in our whole lives – a lot more. Movies like Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and Blade Runner, with respective budgets of $105 million, $95 million, and $70 million (adjusted for inflation) were downright inexpensive when compared with blockbusters like the behemoth Avatar, which cost the equivalent of $266 million today, [Click here to read more…]
Accidentally Finding Long Lost Progeny
After walking everyone outside, Sandy asks Oldman what other punny names he’d used over the millennia. As Oldman rattles off a dozen or so, Will walks outside and freezes in place. He’d recognized one of the names, a chemistry professor at Oxford from 60 years ago who happens to be his father. Oldman and Will embrace, and after a brief but touching scene where Will is reverted to his childhood self, crying (“I called, I wrote, etc.”), he collapses from an apparent heart attack.
I watched this scene mouth agape, feeling as though I missed something. No way! I thought. Popular cinema has taught me that blood relations recognize each other on sight! How did Oldman not “just know?” Brushing that nonsense aside, I let myself get emotionally invested enough to sniffle a bit when Sandy says, “You’ve never seen one of your children die before, have you?” (or something like that). Oldman shakes his head, and he and Sandy wait together for the ambulance to come. After presumably being questioned by the police, the officer tells Oldman to stick around in case they have any more questions, to which Oldman responds, “I’ll be back for the funeral.”
Final Thoughts on Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth
BAM! Mic drop. They brought it full circle! I feel like an idiot for not anticipating that ending, but I think I enjoyed it more not knowing. The Man from Earth gets a lot of flak for being “on the nose,” but I personally believe it fits with the whole tone and feel of the movie. It’s not a movie that can be ruined by spoilers, as the entire plot can be (and is) summarized on the back of the DVD case, and most sci-fi nerds can anticipate Oldman’s “revelations” as the movie progresses (though I do admit, I thought he was going to be the biblical figure Judas, not Jesus). Jerome Bixby’s Man from Earth isn’t going to shock or thrill, but it is captivating and makes you wonder about the universe and the future of mankind, and that is really all one could ask for from intellectual science fiction.
I truly enjoyed the film; it was a breath of fresh air compared with the city-leveling explosion-packed CGI orgies we’re force-fed nowadays and raised real philosophical questions I enjoy pondering. Out of five, I would give the film an objective three, but a solid four if you take it as what it is and enjoy it for that.
Stay tuned for our exclusive interview with The Man from Earth: Holocene producer, Eric D. Wilkinson!