It was late, and I couldn’t sleep. So as I often do, I was leafing through Netflix. I happened upon a film that intrigued me – Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth.
I had never head of Jerome Bixby, but apparently he was a major writer of episodic and short story science fiction in years past. He wrote some of the seminal episodes of the original Star Trek series: “Mirror, Mirror”, “Requiem for Methuselah.” Apparently, he is pretty influential. (So much to learn.)
In 1989, Bixby lay dying, and he dictated a screenplay from an idea he had in the 1960’s. This is how Netflix summarizes it:
…This provocative film about a professor who reveals to his colleagues that he’s actually a centuries old caveman.
It took nearly twenty years to turn the screenplay into a film, but it was finally released in 2007.
I don’t want to get into the details of the story, but essentially it revolves around a man named John Oldman. At his goodbye party with his colleagues, he reveals that he is a 14,000 year old Cro-Magnon man. The ensuing conversation plumbs the depths of anthropology, biology and even religion.
The entire film takes place within the limits of Oldman’s cabin in some non-descript mountainous region. His companions are all experts in their respective fields, which allows the dialogue to explore all kinds of different implications to Oldman’s tremendous age.
There were a couple of major blunders in the film, like Oldman talking about Columbus and mentioning, “I had a suspicion the world was round, but I still thought he might fall of the edge.” Since the entire “Columbus sailed to prove the world was round” idea dates only to Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, it is anachronistic.
At one point, the Christian of the group around John is asked which version of the Bible she prefers. She says, “The King James of course. It is a thoroughly modern.” This was actually one of two references to the King James Bible for some reason, and one of many incorrect statements about the Scriptures. The same character says in one scene that she takes every word of the Scriptures literally, and then in another scene says she does not accept the virgin birth or pretty much any of Luke’s narrative of Christ’s birth. There are a number of statements that demonstrate the characters poor understanding of the Bible – all standard academic shlock.
(My impression was that Bixby was more than willing to dismiss the Scriptures and Christians as representative of all religious people. He seems to have an affinity for Buddhism.)
There were a few poorly researched things like that.
What was the point of the story? That was a question that kept coming up in the movie itself, and I felt it never addressed the question properly. In most ways, the film just confirmed the standard, mainstream lines about most fields, including religion and philosophy. It reminded me a lot of “No Way Out” by Jean-Paul Sartre in its setting and its accompanying resolution that life is ultimately fleeting – although the tone was quite different from Sartre’s masterpiece.
But I digress.
I return to my question. What was the point? I think that Bixby’s thesis was two-fold:
1. Human experience advances but we do not improve. Over and over, John reminds his listeners that he encountered war and death everywhere he went. People have always rejected and feared his unaging face.
2. Ultimately, joy is found in our lives. I can’t really expound this point without giving away the ending; but true joy and true pain are still experienced, even in the heart of a 14,000 year old man who should have experienced everything. John is not jaded to the human experience.
There were a lot of unexplored themes that Bixby rushed through – or the director did, I’m not sure. All in all, this movie had a great premise that could have used some revision. Most of the time, the dialogue was actually quite good – if too intellectual for most audiences – but there were also some very slopply expositional moments.