Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth

Tagged: Film

Film (2007; vt The Man from Earth). Falling Sky Entertainment. Directed by Richard Schenkman, starring David Lee Smith, Tony Todd, John Billingsley, Ellen Crawford, Annika Peterson, William Katt, Alexis Thorpe, and Richard Riehle. Written by Jerome Bixby. 87 minutes. Colour.

History professor John Oldman, who has unexpectedly announced he is leaving his position, hosts a farewell party for several colleagues and a student. In the course of their conversation, he reveals that he is actually several thousand years old, though he cannot explain why he is apparently immortal (> Immortality); he is compelled to move away and start a new life every ten years so no one will notice that he never ages. He eventually tells them that, enlightened by an encounter with the Buddha, he then traveled to Israel to teach Buddhist doctrines and became the figure we know as Jesus Christ. As this idea is very distressing to his friends, especially one devout Christian, he backtracks and describes his revelations as an elaborate joke, though as he departs in the company of his department secretary, apparently ready to embark upon a romantic relationship, their final words suggest that his story was entirely true.

This unusual film, its screenplay completed by Bixby shortly before his death in 1998, constitutes a true test of the proposition that sf is a literature of ideas, since it involves absolutely no special effects, only an intriguing conceit developed entirely by means of dialogue. It also provides an interesting contrast to Bixby's other story about an immortal man, the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah" (1968): whereas that story's Flint was a genius whose past identities had included Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Brahms, Oldman repeatedly emphasizes that he is only an ordinary man, whose extraordinary achievements emerged solely from the wisdom learned in the course of his long life. And while "Requiem for Methuselah" is ultimately a cautionary tale about the drawbacks of Immortality, Bixby here artfully avoids both of the usual extremes of stories addressing this theme, as Oldman's immortality is viewed as neither a curse nor a blessing, but simply as a different sort of life that he had to adjust to. This overlooked film's direct-to-DVD release included a track of commentary from Bixby's son (Jan) Emerson Bixby (1963-    ) and sf scholar Gary Westfahl. [GW]

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