Richard Schenkman | 87 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG
IMDb’s Top Rated lists tend to be full of films you’ve heard of; the kind of features that are sufficiently well-known to have been seen by a lot of people and so attract enough qualifying votes, and are well-regarded enough (be that critically or the baying masses) for those votes to be fairly high. So The Man from Earth has been an odd fixture on the Top 50 Sci-Fi Films for the last few years. It’s a low-budget, low-key feature from a TV writer (the titular Jerome Bixby) that stars mainly TV actors (the kind of faces recognisable to those who watched a lot of ’90s US SF and no one else). It’s not very widely seen, but has managed to maintain a permanent place on the list’s lower end for years now, despite increased awareness no doubt due to that very list (the number of votes it’s received has gone up considerably; as of this posting it sits at 42nd, whereas I swear it used to be in the top 25).
So does it deserve its place? Well, that’s a trickier question. The low-budget roots show through plainly: it’s all shot on grainy digital video, looking cheaper than even lower-end TV shows do these days, and all takes place in one location where a group of characters sit around and have a natter. You could perform it on stage and not have to lose anything. But that doesn’t make it inherently bad, just more surprising that it’s upheld its place on a public-voted list. You can see reviews on IMDb that bemoan the digital video, the wordy script, and so on, and yet they’re clearly not influential enough to pull it down.
Judged on its own terms, however, The Man from Earth is what one might call Proper Science Fiction. Most films classed as sci-fi just feature aliens or what have you; they’re space opera, or just action movies where Americans fight off-planet enemies instead of out-of-country enemies; the kind of thing Ray Bradbury termed fantasy rather than sci-fi (I’m inclined to agree, but that’s a discussion for another time). Instead of Shooting And Blowing Up Stuff, or even comedy antics with a twist, The Man from Earth deals in Ideas.
To say too much might spoil the setup, though I imagine it’s given away in the blurb, but let me try anyway: a college professor has decided to quit his job and move on, trying to slink away without anyone noticing; his friends and colleagues arrive at his house to cheer him on his way, but get sidetracked into a long discussion about a revelation he has for them. Something like that. This is why its IMDb place continues to surprise me — because the wider voting audience generally don’t like movies where nothing happens but chat.
As you may have guessed from repeated statements of surprise, I don’t think The Man from Earth is for everyone. You have to be able to look past the budget production values, the occasionally lower-end-TV level acting, the limitations of setting and action. If you sit down to view it as a filmed discussion between friends that you are a silent part of, and are prepared for all the slowness of pace that involves (because compare the experience of doing anything in real life for an hour and a half to how much gets crammed into a movie’s 90 minutes — that’s the speed Man from Earth moves), and are open to a movie that posits an idea and then explores it — including twists and turns of variable merit — then you might enjoy this film. I did.
I’ll continue to be surprised by its IMDb placement (unless it ever drops off, of course), but I’m glad it’s there. Whether it’s one of the 50 best sci-fi films of all time, I’m not sure, but it’s the kind of SF that should be on the list, and if by being there it reaches a broader audience than it would otherwise, that’s a very good thing.
And that concludes the reviews for 2011! I’ll try not to take until June next year.