The Man from Earth (2007): A movie review

John opens up gradually and reveals that he is a Cro-magnon (caveman from the prehistoric times) who has lived for more than 14000 years. He keeps changing his identity and relocating himself every ten years to hide his immortality. He begins his story in the guise of science fiction melodrama, asking his colleagues to give it a thought, even if hypothetically. As the plot develops, John stops being hypothetical and provides answers from a first-person perspective. John shares how he was part of great civilizations and even became a disciple of Buddha. He was lucky enough to travel alongside Columbus, even befriended Von Gogh. His colleagues refuse to believe him.

When David Harvey arrived on the coast of Baltimore in the early 1970s, he saw a society engulfed by racial protests, campus riots, and violence against minorities. He found it difficult to analyze and diagnose what was happening around him from his disciplinary knowledge. Finally, Marx came to Harvey’s rescue. Harvey picked up Marx’s Capital and began teaching the classic work to a group of students in the campus. Teaching Marx was harder than he thought. In one of the lectures in the series titled ‘Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey”, he says, “After teaching Marx’s Capital for a decade or so on, I realized that I had misinterpreted Marx’s Capital in the first 2–3 years of my teaching. My limited understanding of the Marxist text was further exposed when a few students trained in literary theory and deconstruction joined my class. That year, I could not even cover one-third of the syllabus I was supposed to cover. Since then, I have been discovering and rediscovering something in Marx’s writings.”

I rediscovered Man from Earth while watching it during the classes. I had never thought that this movie would be so intense, and full of meanings. I never saw it as a ‘method’ movie. The film is set in and around John Oldman’s house. John has resigned from the professorship, and some of his friends gather at his home for his farewell. The opening scene discusses ‘strippers’, ‘beers’. John is asked whether he is planning to join ‘Stanford’. John’s colleagues press him to explain the reason behind his sudden departure. John opens up gradually and reveals that he is a Cro-magnon (caveman from the prehistoric times) who has lived for more than 14000 years. He keeps changing his identity and relocating himself every ten years to hide his immortality. He begins his story in the guise of science fiction melodrama, asking his colleagues to give it a thought, even if hypothetically. As the plot develops, John stops being hypothetical and provides answers from a first-person perspective. John shares how he was part of great civilizations and even became a disciple of Buddha. He was lucky enough to travel alongside Columbus, even befriended Von Gogh. His colleagues refuse to believe him.

Unperturbed, John continues his story. He shares the details about his illnesses, all the PhDs he acquired, how he saw a great valley turning into a sea. John seems to be hesitant when asked to share the details from the biblical period. He first refuses but eventually agrees to his friends’ requests. When asked whether he was among all those characters mentioned in the bible, he remains silent. When pressed hard, John claims that he was the Jesus. He contradicts events associated with Jesus’s resurrection and claims that Jesus’s commandments were nothing but Buddha’s teaching in the simplest form, which he wanted to share with the world. As some of his colleagues become emotionally charged, John is asked to stop his ‘nonsensical’ story. The film ends with a heart-attack leading to the death of Dr. Will Gruber. He overhears John and Sandy’s conversation and breakdowns emotionally when John shares that he was Gruber’s father. Sandy remarks that it was for the first time John had seen his grown-up child die. John and Sandy leave for an unknown location.

Expertise, methods, and the limitation of disciplinary knowledge

While John is a history teacher, his colleagues are equally accomplished. Harry is a biologist. Edith, who is accompanying Harry, is an art history professor and a devout Christian. Dan HAS expertise in Anthropology. Art, who arrives on a bike with his student Linda, is an archaeologist. Will Gruber, a psychologist, is called up by Art when he feels that John was ‘hallucinating’. John gets unflinching support from Sandy, a history teacher, who also happens to be in love with John. John’s colleagues use their disciplinary knowledge to pick a hole in John’s narrative. Harry believes that a human body can only live up to 190 years or so, given that it can perfectly regenerate itself from time to time. He finds it difficult to believe John’s claim as biology did not allow for the possibility of a human being living for so long. Art finds John’s answers about the prehistoric period convincing, but he still does not believe in John’s claim of being a Cro-magnon. In his words, John’s answers could have come ‘straight from the textbooks’. Dan seems to be entertaining the claims made by John and scrutinizing them within the possibilities of disciplinary knowledge of anthropology. Linda acknowledges the fact that John’s claims cannot be disproved within the disciplinary boundaries, so we might have to take his claims at their face-value.

Will, the psychiatrist, feels that John needs psychiatric help. He uses standard psychoanalytical techniques to put John into a guilt trip. He even threatens John with a gun and asks him to stop playing the devil. Edith is the one who is most offended by the claims made by John. She terms John’s claims ‘sacrilege’ and ‘blasphemous’. Despite having a strong disagreement with the claims made by John, nobody seems to be able to refute him.

Dialogues, dialectics and the meaning-making through interpretation

The movie is entirely built around John’s interaction with his colleagues. The plot follows a Hegelian dialectic process where statements are made in the form of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. For instance, observe how the concept of time is discussed among the participants;

Dan: Time… you can’t see it, you can hear it, you can’t weigh it, you can’t… measure it in a laboratory. It is a subjective sense of… becoming, what we… are, instead of what we were a nanosecond ago, becoming what we will be in another nanosecond. The whole piece of time’s a landscape existing, we form behind us, and we move, we move through it… slice by slice.

Linda Murphy: Clocks measure time.

Dan: No, they measure themselves, the objective referee of a clock is another clock.

Edith: All very interesting, but what has it got to do with John?

Dan: He, he might be man who… lives… outside of time as we know it.

There are also a few quick conversations between John and his colleagues. Most of the times, it is John who is presenting counter-evidence to the theories dearly-held by his colleagues. For instance, when Edith tries to test John’s memory, John retorts;

Edith: [Angry] Where were you in 1292 A.D.?

John Oldman: [Calm] Where were you a year ago today?

Art too gets a stern reply from John when he accuses John of saying something which defies common sense.

Art: What you’re saying, it offends common sense.

John Oldman: So, does Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, that’s the way nature works.

Dan, not as sceptical as others, asks John whether he has saved any ‘relic’ or ‘evidence’ from his earlier which might prove his longevity. John uses the analogy of a ball-point pen to convince Dan about the fallacy inherent in his argument. How would John know that something would be considered an artifact in the future? The conversation goes like;

Dan: Wouldn’t you have some relic, an artifact, to remind you of your earlier life? Like this maybe.

[holding up bone tool]

John Oldman: Thrift shop. Really.

John Oldman: [lecturing now] If you lived a hundred, a thousand years, would you still have this?

[holds up ballpoint pen]

John Oldman: What would cause you to keep it? As a memento to your beginnings, even if you didn’t have a concept of beginnings? It would be gone. Lost. No. I don’t have artifacts. Keep that.

[tosses the ballpoint pen to Harry]

Dan: Interesting. You could have lied about that.

John Oldman: [totally serious] Don’t talk about me while I’m gone.

Dan realizes the fallibility in his arguments and acknowledges that it would be as difficult for John to prove his arguments as much as it is difficult for us to disapprove of his.

Dan: There’s absolutely no way in the whole world for John to prove his story. Just like there’s no way for us to disprove it. No matter how outrageous we think it is, no matter how highly trained some of us think we are, there’s absolutely no way to disprove it! My friend is either a caveman, a liar, or a nut. So, while we’re thinking about that, why don’t we just go with it.

Finally, Harry’s statement summarizes the intent with which this movie was made. People were open enough to listen to the claims made by John, even they felt that the claims were outrageous. A true meaning-making exercise needs a safe environment where everybody has equal right to share their feelings.

Harry: Edith, I was raised on the Torah, my wife on the Qu’Ran, my eldest son is an Atheist, my youngest is a scientologist, my daughter is studying Hinduism, I imagine there is room there for a holy war in my living room, but we practice live and let live.

EdTech, Educational Data Sciences, Childhood Studies, History of Education & Policy Sociology, curate @central_ed , Currently @IIMAhmedabad