(Versión en castellano aquí)
For fans of the genre, the film “The Man from Earth”, released in 2007 is already one of the essential titles in the catalog of modern science fiction. Included in the circuits of independent cinema, and with a modest ticket office, it never reached the general public, and not even its twelve international awards managed to attract the interest of the critics. But it has already accumulated more than 3.6 million downloads on the Internet, and ten years later there are a thousand torrents available, where hundreds of users continue to obtain it daily. Therefore, it is expected that the number of spectators will continue to increase. Thanks to word of mouth, as he has done so far.
The history of the feature film introduces us to the life of John Oldman, a university professor; on the day he abandons his old life. His colleagues and friends come to give him a small farewell party, while still asking him why he is leaving. And suddenly, John responds. Assuring them that he was born as a Paleolithic hunter, 14,000 years ago, and that to hide his immortality he moves his residence every ten years. From that point on, the movie is a permanent game with the viewer. Who in turn will be inclined to think that everything is true, that John is a little bit mad, or that everything is just a well-told story. We will see also appear interesting philosophical and moral implications, and all kinds of psychological reactions in their friends.
It is a plot with hardly any action, which takes place in a tiny stage, that of John’s house and its porch. It looks like a play and could have become a boring or banal movie if it were not for Jerome Bixby. A writer unjustly converted into the Troy McClure of science fiction.
Those who are followers of The Simpsons will have understood the allusion to a Hollywood has-been. This character usually introduces him saying, ”Hi, I’m Troy McClure, you may remember me from…” It’s a recurring joke about this stars whose time is out after a bit success. Something similar has happened with the memory of Jerome Bixby, whose stories for literature, cinema, and television are hardly remembered although many of his ideas continue to be developed today.
Bixby was an editor in the 1950s of the pulp magazine Planet Stories, where short tales of Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, among others, were first published.
He wrote as an author in his turn, moving from the novels of the West to stories that, without limiting themselves to spatial settings, incorporated the keys of the fantastic and horror genres. His great legacy would be visible in the cinema and television. He defined some of the master lines of the Star Trek series, with three episodes considered classic: “Mirror mirror”, “Day of the Dove”, and “Requiem for Methuselah”. In them appears three main ideas of science fiction, the parallel universes, the entity that feeds on negative emotions, and the human being thousands of years old.
We also owe to Bixby the best episode of the series “The Twilight Zone” titled “It’s a Good Life”, which corresponds with one of its short tales, first published in 1953. This plot would be later incorporated into the scriptwriter of the eighty´s film. Even the idea of a miniaturized crew traveling to the interior of the human body is a Bixby´s. It constitutes the plot of the film “Fantastic Voyage”, that today many consider invented by Isaac Asimov, who simply bought to Bixby his script to develop it in a novel.
But that’s not all. Richard Schenkman, director of “The Man from Earth”, reveals the author’s most relevant contribution to film and science fiction of our time to us. I quote his words: “The greatest crime in Bixby’s career – in addition to the fact that he disappeared in the dark from the early 1970s to the end of his life – is that he did not get recognition for “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”, which was the basis of “Alien”. That movie that was a giant international success did not reward him or recognition or money from its creators. “
Seeing the feature film “It The Terror …” on YouTube means confirming Schenkman’s opinion. Because except for the design of the creature, the main keys of Alien, including the way in which Lieutenant Ripley finally save himself and the cat, are taken from Bixby’s script. So it cannot be strange that even today one of his scripts has been able to become a success. Like is the case in “The Man from Earth”.
Of course, that would not have happened without the passion and cinematic skill of Richard Schenkman. He was one of those children fascinated by Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and especially Fantastic Voyage, his favorite movie as a child. It took six years to convince Emerson Bixby, son and heir of the author’s rights, to let him turn his father’s script into a feature film. Produced with only 200.000 US dollars, Schenkman gathered a handful of good actors, with the living room of a house and its porch as the only stage. The final outcome are eighty-seven minutes that literally keep us glued to the screen thanks to the skillful use of the light of dusk and night, the chiaroscuro of the interior, and the turning on and off of electric lights. No wonder it continues to download and increasing its number of viewers.
Although it is a bittersweet truth for its director that The Man from Earth has become both a cult title and one as widespread as any blockbuster. And it is because of piracy has barely managed to make it profitable. Worse still, he has not even been able to see his projects come true to continue the saga. A round of financing with Kickstarter failed to raise enough funds to shoot a pilot episode that could give rise to a series. And that has forced us to wait ten years to see the sequel, “The Man from Earth: Holocene”, released in 2017. That continues the story of John Oldman where Bixby left.
Anyone who has seen the first installment will not be surprised if John’s story inspired new ideas to its director. His point of departure was to explore the possibility that there was a group of people aware of John’s immortality. And they wanted to establish a religious cult around him; something about the protagonist would be horrified. On this basis were made contributions to the new script by Emerson Bixby, son of Jerome, and by producer Eric D. Wilkinson. The result is a film that suggests a multitude of interpretations and narrative paths, not all of them explored. And that reaffirms us in the possibility that it becomes a series, desire to which its creators have not yet completely renounced.
The new installment leaves the claustrophobic scenario of John’s house, which allows the character to develop further, and the viewer to understand his way of acting and his psychology. It also introduces the point of view of the students, fundamental factor in a protagonist who has at least the entire 20th century working as a university professor. Immortality also takes us into the emotional conflict of a man condemned to exist. There is even a call to our own time and to the marked influence we exert on the planet.
On the Internet there are reviews for all tastes about Holocene. But the good thing, in this case, is that it is not necessary to be guided by the opinions of others. Anyone can download it free and legally on most websites dedicated to pirate downloads. It is a contradiction only apparent because it is part of the decision of its own creators. Partly as a tribute to those who contributed their piracy to the success of the first film. And partly because it was inevitable that it was pirated. Due to this, the film starts with a presentation made by its director, where he explains a truth as simple as demolishing: that a movie you get for free does not mean that making it is free too. Schenkman appeals to a pact of honor with you, suggesting that you make a donation if you liked it, and you can afford it. On manfromearth.com/holocene you decide the amount. And what happens if you do not know enough English to follow the dialogues? Well, you will not have any problem, since this time, together with the launch, they have taken care that there are subtitles in several languages, including the original one. Something that in the first was doing on their own Internet users, as is common in successful pirate tapes.
It seems a risky experiment to appeal to the honor of some pirate spectators. And it also places its creators in the debate about the future of audiovisual production. Countless emails, comments, and articles have been directed to Richard Scheinkman claiming the total gratuity of his film and of all those that exist. He would completely agree if it were not for the fee of cameras, make-up artists, actors, food vendors, transporters, and other personnel involved in a movie. They need to eat daily, take shelter under a roof and pay their expenses. How to convert then the contents into free when making them is so expensive. Apparently, Internet users have forgotten in their manifestos to explain that detail to the director.
Many other viewers have also turned to him to ask if donations made to the webpage would go directly to their creators because otherwise, they would not even consider paying them anything. The answer is yes. There are no intermediaries. But from that prejudice in paying to third parties its director extracts another reflection. Can a model like this one, which appeals to good repute, be moved to creations like those of Hollywood, which involve millions of dollars? The answer is no. Many viewers who are willing to pay for an independent film assume that the producers of the others are rich, as well as the people who have worked on them, and do not need to charge. “There are no free meals, and certainly no free movies.” They are Scheinkman’s words that define perfectly the problem.
There is something else in Holocene, and I have left it to the end because it appears after the credits. It is a short, very shocking sequence that opens up another possibility to answer the question of who is John Oldman, the 14.000-year-old man. I think I’m not the only one who has left stunned, because the director now doubts that it was a good idea to include it, instead of giving it as an extra in the distribution on DVD and Blu-Ray. Apparently, many of us have misunderstood this open end, giving it too much importance. But that is also another proof of the powerful story that “The Man from Earth” contains. And of its possibilities to become a success transferred to series, following in the wake of Black Mirror or Stranger Things. Something that this time will depend exclusively on us, on downloads that we accumulate, and on the retribution that we are willing to give their authors. My recommendation? Run to see both movies, if have not already done so. And if you find some books from Jerome Bixby, read them too.