MARTHA THOMASES: Space Oddity
Jerome Bixby’s Man From Earth is a profoundly unfashionable film. Written by Bixby before he died and directed by Richard Schenkman, it’s a science fiction movie with no aliens, no space ships, not even any explosions. It’s a thoughtful movie, intimate, with adult actors dealing with complex philosophical ideas.
When I was first reading science fiction, I liked the books with lots of talking and big ideas. I liked Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and the robot books, where scientists explained large concepts and the societies these concepts would inspire. I liked it so much that I could often overlook inane plots and cardboard characters. When the books were more literate, that was even better.
Jerome Bixby is a science fiction writer from the old school. He wrote episodes of Twilight Zone and Star Trek, including “Mirror, Mirror.” He wrote screenplays, including Fanatastic Voyage, which was based on his short story. Just before he died, he wrote the screenplay to The Man From Earth.
It’s a small film, produced on a shoestring budget of $200,000. The closest thing to a celebrity in the cast is William Katt, formerly the star of The Greatest American Hero. Also in the cast is Richard Riehle, a character actor you’ve seen in a zillion movies, Annika Peterson, Ellen Crawford, John Billingsley, Tony Todd, Alexis Thorpe and David Lee Smith as the central character, John Oldman.
There is only one set, a cabin in the woods, and the entire story takes place over the course of a single day. John Oldman is a university professor packing his belongings to leave for a new job. His friends, other professors and a student, have come with food and drink to wish him well. Over the course of the day, he tells them that, to the best of his knowledge, he’s 14,000 years old.
For the rest of the film, these highly educated, polite people argue with each other about whether or not such a thing is possible, or is Oldman pulling some kind of cerebral practical joke. They consider religion, anthropology, history, and the other fields in which they are expert. No one attacks Oldman for a DNA sample to run tests, no one pulls out an old photograph or other evidence. The devout Christian character feels threatened, but does not condemn Oldman to Hell, nor does she stone him. They talk from mid-afternoon until night, when the last few people at the party go out to look at the stars.
The film is very moody, and the acting is terrific. Directed by Richard Schenkman, the performances could have been over the top, with long speeches and characters who might have been little more than mouthpieces for philosophical constructs.
Currently, Jerome Bixby’s Man From Earth is supposed to be released in DVD in November from Anchor Bay Entertainment. You might be able to see it in a theater if it can pick up a distributor before then. Catch it if you can.
Martha Thomases, the Media Goddess of ComicMix, feels honor-bound to confess that she knows Richard Schenkman, who is married to her good friend and father of the amazingly wonderful Tiger Sasha Schenkman.