The Man from Earth: Holocene (2017)

2018 #9
Richard Schenkman | 99 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

The Man from Earth: Holocene

Back in 2007, a low-budget sci-fi movie about a gang of college professors sat around having a chat kinda went viral: a screener copy was uploaded to piracy websites, from where people who would probably never have even heard of it otherwise were able to download and watch it. Interest in the film on IMDb jumped by 11,000%, and high user ratings earnt it a place on their list of the top 50 sci-fi films. The film in question was Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth.

Ten years later, here’s a sequel from the same crew (though not written by Bixby — his original screenplay was produced posthumously), and this time the makers have engaged with file sharing head on: rather than wait for someone to pirate the film, as would inevitably happen, they’ve uploaded it themselves. They’re banking on the honour system, asking people to donate if they liked the movie. If torrenting isn’t your thing, it’s also available to stream on MovieSaints, and on Vimeo next week, with a DVD and Blu-ray release coming soon. Personally, I first encountered the project 3½ years ago, when it was known as The Man from Earth: The Series and they were crowdfunding to produce a pilot episode. I backed it then, though ironically have ended up torrenting it now because the reward copy provided was through MovieSaints and I can’t watch that on my TV. But anyway.

Ageing hurts

The story picks up ten years on from the events of the first film, with the 14,000-year-old title character now going by the name John Young (David Lee Smith) and lecturing at a community college in California. When a gang of his adoring students stumble upon a book about the events of that fateful night a decade ago, they begin their own investigation into whether John’s seemingly impossible story is actually true. Meanwhile, for the first time in about 13,965 years, John has begun to show signs of ageing…

Holocene has some very good ideas that could’ve made for a worthy continuation of the original film. Chief among them is the mystery of John’s relatively sudden ageing. Is he dying? Is he just entering a new phase of his existence? Either way: why? The film asks these questions, makes nods towards possible explanations, but otherwise doesn’t seek to explore it too much. It’s more concerned with meandering through a story that doesn’t quite rehash the first film but is distinctly reminiscent of it: a group of college-related people, with diverse religious beliefs and levels of scepticism, investigate the incredible notion that a professor may be 14,000 years old and, during that time, once have been the person we know as Jesus Christ. Watching a bunch of students going through the motions of uncovering a story we already know isn’t the most thrilling narrative, quite frankly.

On the bright side, it eventually leads to a long scene in a basement which is loaded with tension and possibilities. It features an ‘evil Christian’ type, which is a dead giveaway for the authors’ atheist beliefs — fine by me, but it may not work for some people. This scene works particularly well as a sequel to the original film in itself, because although it too is a kind of re-run of the first film, it comes at it from a very different angle. It’s a little bit ironic that, for a film which is trying to open out the world of its story to be more than just a near-real-time fireside chat, the best bit is still an extended scene where two people just talk in a room.

The wannabe Scooby Gang

But Holocene’s biggest problem comes right at the end, when it abruptly finishes with various plot threads unresolved. As I mentioned, this project started life as a pilot for a TV series, later evolving into a standalone film (presumably as a way to secure funding — having something you can actually release is a safer bet than a pilot that requires a series pickup). Unfortunately, the makers still have hopes of either a sequel or that series, and so the story stops at a point which feels just a scene or two away from a resolution. To rub salt in the wound, there’s a bizarre mid-credits scene that throws a totally new, very different storyline into the mix. I think there were better ways to leave things set up for possible further instalments, and more interesting directions to suggest they might go in too. Or maybe they have a really good grand plan for this storyline? Perhaps we’ll get to find out.

One of the most accidentally striking elements of the original Man from Earth was that it was shot on SD digital video. They’ve upgraded to HD this time, meaning it doesn’t look quite as cheap-and-cheerful, but it does still have a lo-fi semi-pro feel. (As one commenter on Letterboxd put it, “still has that softcore porn vibe”. I think that says more about his viewing habits than the film itself, but you get his point.) On the acting front, David Lee Smith is still the clear standout. He imbues John with a quiet authority — you can believe this is a guy who’s lived for centuries; his very presence elevated by a lifetime of learning but weighed down by a lifetime of regrets. The rest of the cast are decent.

Pour yourself a drink, you might need it

The writing is a little up and down. Some bits almost sing with an understated focus on character. Other bits clunk, like a terribly forced encounter to kick off the third act. Most often it feels like scenes needed a trim to keep everything a little tighter. It’s not that it’s a slow-paced movie and I’m claiming that’s a problem, it’s that at times it seems to be drifting aimlessly. The first film is ‘slow’ in some people’s eyes, but it’s actually a very tightly constructed movie; it’s just that that tightness is driven by the dialogue and story construction rather than, say, fast cutting. Holocene lacks a similarly taut screenplay. Chopping out ten minutes, both of little bits here and there but also a few scenes that I guess are meant to build up the students’ characters but I kind of feel are ultimately unnecessary, might work wonders. Well, maybe not wonders, but it’d be better.

Holocene fritters away goodwill on a reheated teen remix of the first film’s story, has the audacity to not conclude that properly, and then does little to promise a bright future with a DOA mid-credits twist. Even still, I don’t think the film is the total disaster some reviews are painting it as, not least because I believe there’s potential left in a continuation of The Man from Earth — there are interesting developments of the series’ central concept here. Unfortunately they remain little more than teases as the film instead wastes time reinvestigating what we already know. It winds up disappointing.

3 out of 5

The Man from Earth: Holocene is available to stream and download in various ways now. For more details, visit ManFromEarth.com.

The Man from Earth (2007)

aka Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth

2011 #98
Richard Schenkman | 87 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG

The Man from EarthIMDb’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.

The Pout from EarthJudged 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, The Cast from Earthand 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.

4 out of 5

And that concludes the reviews for 2011! I’ll try not to take until June next year.