Man From Earth

Director: Richard Schenkman
Running Time: 87 minutes
Studio: Anchor Bay
Starring: David Lee Smith,
John Billingsley, William Katt,
Ellen Crawford, and Tony Todd
Year released: 2007

What do you get when you combine a cast of second string nobodies with a 200,000 dollar budget, a director whose best know work is the abysmal Divas Christmas Carol, and the author of one of the most well know Star Trek stories of all time? Why, you get The Man from Earth of course, a film which in its 87 minute, special effects free, running time does a better job at being compelling science fiction than anything that George Lucas has put out since Empire.

I want to be kind of careful with this one. I really like this movie and do not want to spoil some of the surprises, so just be forewarned that there are some spoilers here. You have been warned!

The Plot:
Professor John Oldman (his name is a bad pun, you’ll see) is leaving his job at the university and moving away. Before he can go, however, a group of his friends surprise him with a small going away gathering. The cast is composed of a group of real second string actors, including Dr. Phlox, the Candyman, and the Jump-to-Conclusions guy from Office Space, which is must say is impressive, because each of them gives a performance worthy of top billing. It just goes to show what happens when you have really strong material to work with what you can get.

As I was saying, John’s friends join together to throw him a party, and in the course of their discussion John begins asking a strange series of questions about Human DNA and the aging process. At first his friends play along, but then begin to grow rather perplexed as to why John is asking about this. Eventually he makes a decision and reveals that he is actually a prehistoric man who has lived for over 14,000 years.

His friend, of course, do not believe him, but as he begins weaving his tale together for them more and more they find themselves getting sucked in, despite the fact that what he says is impossible. And before too long they increasingly find themselves believing what he is saying.

The tales takes a few twists and turns from there, with John revealing some things that upset more than a few people (Hint: it’s connected to the Bible, and John’s connection to one of its important players) and eventually John tells everyone that he was just making up the story and sends them all home. Some people think he’s crazy, and some think he was telling the truth. I won’t tell you which of his friends were right, but I will tell you this: you will get a solid answer before the film ends.

The Review:
What’s the deal with this film?

The story of how this movie was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. The script was written by Jerome Bixby, the same guy who wrote the famous Mirror, Mirror episode of Star Trek (remember evil Spock? This guy wrote that) The script itself was begun in the 1960’s, but wasn’t completed for years after, and was eventually finished by Bixby on his deathbed (I’m not sure if he actually finished it there, but that’s what all the taglines say, so who am I to question?)

Despite this high pedigree script, the film seemed doomed to flop. A small budget, no special effects, hardly any theatrical run, and a cast whose lead actor doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry doesn’t really sound like a winning formula.

And yet? Well, in a strange twist of fate, this film was pirated on the internet. I know, I know, every film is pirated on the internet, but this time instead of the studio going after the pirates, they encouraged it!

Yep, you see, the producers of the film could have been pissed that their only chance at making any money off this film was being taken away from them by internet pirates. However, instead of lashing out, producer Eric Wilkinson actually thanked the pirates for getting the word out about the film. And it worked. The film became a cult classic in a very short period of time, and has gotten a heck of a lot more attention than probably anyone connected with the film expected. It’s even up for a Saturn Award!

The Specs:
Just so we are clear, as much as I love or hate a movie, what matters most to me as a consumer is whether or not the DVD is worth it. With that in mind, we shall begin!

Packaging: I’m kind of disappointed by the box here. It’s just too slick and shiny for the film it contains. Not that I don’t understand it, mind you. I doubt your average DVD shopper was going to pick this film up if the box just showed a bunch of people sitting around a fire place, but still, something doesn’t feel right about it. The movie spends all of its time trying to give a logical and realistic view of what it would be like to live as long as John did, and then they slap a big old alien laser light outline on the cover.

The box itself has a slipcover, which I do like, even though it’s the same image as the dvd cover. The slipcover does serve to mute the effect somewhat though.

Inside the case you get the DVD with the same image on it, and a chapter insert card. I really like it when DVD’s include this. I always feel a bit disappointed when I open up a case and there is nothing there. Putting in a little card with the chapters and some additional artwork not only makes the box a bit nicer, it also shows that the people who put this film together actually care about it and are not just slapping it out in a rush for the money. It also shows a commitment to the fans that they take the time to spruce it up a bit before they put it on the shelves.

Bonus Features:
First off, we have 2 commentary tracks here, one featuring the Richard Shenkman and actor John Billingsley, the other with the author’s son Emerson Bixby and sci-fi scholar Gary Westfahl. Both tracks will amuse, as well as give interesting insight into the process of making this film. What is nice to hear is just how much genuine love went into making this movie, and how much it meant to Bixby to get his father’s last work onto the screen. What would have been nice is getting a track with just the actors, or one that included David Lee Smith, but for a movie like this we’re lucky to get anything bonus at all.

I’ll freely admit I am a DVD commentary nut, and I’ve passed on buying some DVDs of movies I love simply because there is no track included. To me, it really shows a lack of interest in their work or lack of commitment to a project when the director doesn’t take the time to sit down after the movie is made and kind of talk the audience through their film. I also like it when the actors sit down too and talk about what is was like making the movies.

I know a lot of people who have tried to make their own films and write their own scripts, and a lot of them use DVD commentary tracks as a kind of low budget film school to help figure out how to do certain things like trim dialogue and shoot angles. It shows a nice commitment to the craft when the people involved with the films are able to help others who are interested in this profession by offering insight in this way.

The DVD also includes 4 (very) short behind the scenes featurettes about the making of the film. With a low budget film like this it’s not surprising that all four are very short, but they do offer some good insight into the process for those interested in film making, including how to deal with both a location that doesn’t have a bathroom, and with a dirt bike track next to your set. There is also a nice feature on how the script came together, and on the sci-fi street cred of the author, and the actors involved in the project.

Score Recap:
Packaging: 7/10
Film: 9/10
Commentary Track: 8/10
Bonus features: 7/10
Total Score: 8/10

My Recommendation: This one is a definite buy. The movie is great, and the special features are a nice addition to a rather lo budget film. Anchor Bay does a nice job with this type of film, and the box shows their usual level of care. Plus, and I cannot stress this enough, this is good science fiction in the vein of classic Twilight Zone type productions. No special effects, no flashy gloss, just a realistic conversation full of intriguing possibility. This is what good sci-fi is supposed to be. If fans of good sci-fi don’t support films like this, then they have no right to complain when studios throw big budget flash and bang at us and call it a movie (cough, cough, Transformers 2, cough).

6 Responses to DVD Review: Man From Earth

  • wesitron says:

    Awesome! I just added it to my instant queue, sounds very interesting. I always say the best Sci Fi focuses more on the fiction than the science and this sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the recommend, I thought I walked into a time machine seeing William Katt billed on something. I just recently re-watched his old horror movie "House" and it's even better than I remember it.

  • I loved the House movies. Speaking of William Katt, a young me used to watch softcore skin flick Naked Obsession which starred Katt quite a bit on HBO or Showtime when it first came out. Back when like after 9 o'clock all those pay channels mostly showed was skin flicks.

    I recall the movie having stock footage in it, or rather I think, an episode of Red Shoe Diaries lifting footage from it and reusing it. One or the other. I just remember realizing that some of the strip scenes I had seen before. I think it wasn't half bad despite the obvious nature of the movie. The fact that Katt was already doing those types of movies showed where his career went, though.

  • Rob_Mac says:

    You'll have to let me know what you think.

  • wesitron says:

    I watched this weeks ago, but apparently thought I'd already responded 🙂 I really liked the flick. They sold a lot of the twists by remaining skeptical and down to earth throughout. I never thought I'd sayd this, but Tony Todd was stellar in this movie. Who would have thought?

    I think the moneymaker probably could have come in a bit earlier and given a lot more emotional impact. Tacked on at the end I think loses what could have been a great plot device. Still, great movie and impressive as a budget sci-fi piece.

  • Rob_Mac says:

    I'm glad you liked it. I watched on a whim one afternoon and found it to be really a fun movie. ANd I agree about Tony Todd, but also the other actors too. It's amazing what a good script will do for actors sometimes.

  • wesitron says:

    Yeah all of the actors were fantastic. I was impressed with not only how well-rounded the characters were, but also that each actor really brought all of those elements to the table. Very well done.

Leave a Reply