Posts filed under ‘The Man from Earth’

Review: The Man from Earth

I’m usually not a fan of philosophical movies.  Films such as Waking Life and What the bleep do we know? especially grate on my sensibilities as they showcase a largely simplified and puerile view of their subjects dressed up in pop-art special effects, and the arguments that they put forth to their audience are riddled with sensationalized examples.  It seems that in many cases, these films are trying to convince you that they are “deep” by reinforcing their argument with showy filmic techniques rather than any real intellectual merit.  When a friend recommended The Man from Earth to me recently, I was therefore a bit wary.  I was intrigued by the premise, but worried that it would simply be another instance of psuedo-scientific art house babble that can only truly be enjoyed through the haze of a narcotic fog.

But enough of ridiculing other movies.  I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised by The Man from Earth: while it is a philosophical movie, it does things right.  The film consists of nothing more than a group of purported intellectuals sitting around and riffing off a single concept, but this concept is interesting enough, and explored from a wide enough variety of angles, that it never gets boring.  There is none of the aforementioned showy panache present here: there is one setting, no special effects, and only a basic framework of a plot that draws the characters together to wax philosophical.  This movie is all about the conversation, which if not mind-expanding is at least an intelligent exploration of the subject at hand.

The basic premise of the story is that a retiring college professor, who has been at his current institution for some 10 years, draws his peers together in order to say his goodbyes and ends up revealing to them that he is, through some unknown providence, an immortal being.  He is to the best of his knowledge originally a Cro Magnon who has been in existence for roughly 14,000 years, and shows no scars or signs of aging beyond his current physical appearance of a 30-something caucasian man.  (As a side note, I’m a bit surprised that race never came up as a topic, either from an anthropological perspective or as a wry “aren’t-you-lucky” remark on his ability to survive through centuries of mankind’s persecution of one another.)  This prompts a philosophical discussion in which he and his peers, who are largely humoring him, explore what it would be like for a man to live for that colossal amount of time.  The discussion is broken up intermittently by a few different things happening in and around the cabin they share – the protagonist, John, fielding a phone call or receiving a returning guest, for example – and in the interim we are treated to a few plot points and a look into what the other characters think of their potentially unbalanced colleague.

A potential criticism of the movie is that the characters are unbelievable – that no reasonable people would go along with such a concept and would rather immediately institutionalize their friend.  However, understanding the conceit of the movie, suspension of disbelief in this regard is a small matter.  The film reminds me most strongly of a play like “No Exit,” or “Waiting for Godot,” where there is an unusual concept fielded at the outset, and the overarching plot takes a back seat to the character’s Socratic dialogue as they explore their situation.  The characters in these plays are at times unreasonable in their behavior, but that isn’t the point – the point lies in the discussion they are having and in the absurdity of their plight.  Of course, this is not an absurdist work, or even high art, and so the film stops just shy of larger literary themes.  I almost wish that the filmmakers had gone all the way and taken a magical realist stab at their subject, in which the supernatural subject is treated like the mundane (or at least accepted as reasonable) by the characters involved.  Perhaps this would have bypassed the need for an ungainly plot and allowed for greater extrapolation of the subject matter.

The dialogue itself is commendable as an exploration of character mentality.  It is harder to say human mentality, as such a human does not exist.  The parts of John’s story that can be extrapolated to the rest of the human race (as in the things he learns and the human priorities that change on a long enough timeline) are largely hit-or-miss, their resonance varying depending on the viewer’s beliefs.  For example, John is an atheist by experience and a polyamorous man by near necessity, his priorities shifting from religion and love – the latter of which he has “gotten over” too many times to believe in – to the accumulation of knowledge and casual sex.*  While it is fine and believable for one man to adapt in this way to his abnormal situation, it is quite another to say that this is a societal lens, and to extrapolate from here that all men have these same priorities deep down.  It would be just as reasonable to explore an immortal man who sees himself as being blessed by a deity and spends his ageless life spreading gospel.  The story ultimately works as an exploration of a single man’s mentality, and nothing more, but that ends up being more than enough.

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* If this sounds like a liberal slant, it is, but I found it to be reasonable and low-key enough not to be politically oppressive.  The professed scenario regarding Jesus and Buddha, which I won’t go into here for spoilers’ sake, is believable from a historical and cross-religious stance, and doesn’t explicitly discount either religion’s veracity.  The only slight issue I took with a political curve was a single wry comment on environmentalism, which, personal opinions aside, was touched upon too lightly to be considered anything but a small political jab.

March 3, 2010 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment


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