The Man From Earth

in reviews

My goodness, two posts in as many days. Well, here’s the one I started out intending to post last night.

I know I’m a nerd when I read a couple of negative reviews of a movie I just watched (The Man From Earth, for the curious), because any time I have trouble deciding what to make of a piece of art I look first for opinions which are critical of it, and suddenly I am ready to write a paper on reality-violating genre conventions of “realistic” film. Which is what I get for going to Netflix and IMDB reviews for my opinions rather than reading educated critics who don’t take the idea of “realism” in fiction at face value. Which is not to say that people are not entitled to their theory-naive opinions of pop culture, I think aggregating many opinions the way IMDB or Netflix reviews do is one of the truly great offerings of the internet, and it wouldn’t work if people weren’t willing and able to judge just about everything they see. It’s just that when I am looking for an analysis of a work that will help me clarify my own thoughts, comments like “this was boring and stupid” and “real people would spend a lot more time talking about themselves” do not help me achieve my goals.

Well, also, you are wrong to want movie dialogue to try and match up closely with how people actually speak, because holy crap listening to that would be a boring and painful experience. Half the time I find just listening to myself while I’m in the middle of talking to be a boring and painful experience. I mean, if you don’t like the movie, that’s fine, you didn’t like it. But adding in lots of dialogue that is irrelevant to the story being told will not actually make it a better movie.

My current opinion of The Man From Earth, for those who continue to be curious, is that while the premise is not exactly ground-breaking in the scope of science fiction as a genre, and the execution had its flaws (some less-than-stellar acting, and most of the characters existed to draw out different aspects of the title character rather than as well-rounded people in themselves, which I suppose is more a structural and aesthetic choice rather than a true “flaw,” but again, it’s unevenly executed), it is practically a revolution in science fiction film-making. It is a movie that tries to accomplish many of the things I love best about SF in any medium, but are so often utterly lacking in movies, and for that I can forgive it many flaws. It drew me in quite effectively.

I could have done with less time spent on religion (certain points felt like the writer expounding on pet peeves rather than existing for the sake of an interesting narrative), but at the same time, for a believer of nearly any faith, the religious implications of the very premise of a 14,000 year-old-man are extremely important and I think that is a fair reflection of how many people might react - a number of the negative reviews call the movie “atheist propaganda,” which they might have done even if the characters themselves didn’t get into religious arguments.

There is an obvious comparison to The Boat of a Million Years, which is a great book with more or less the same premise, but almost entirely the opposite narrative approach. The Man From Earth is a story with about as narrow a scope as one can get in a movie - a group of people, in a room, talking over the course of an evening. Hardly anything actually “happens” and the few attempts at dramatic suspense basically failed. The Boat of a Million Years, on the other hand, is a novel with an incredibly grand scope. The timeline begins thousands of years in the past and extends hundreds of years into the future, the cast of characters is extensive and well-developed, and they range across the globe.

I guess I don’t really have a point to that, except that it’s really interesting to me to see the same idea being explored through such radically different narrative strategies. That’s another topic for a paper I could write but, you know, won’t.

Plus science fiction fans should read The Boat of a Million Years. The ending is not so strong, but but it is still well worth reading.