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The Man From Earth

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Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival

Anyone tired of effects-heavy ideas -- light, glossy-looking Hollywood product of whatever genre -- should seek out "The Man From Earth," a philosophical/theological enterprise so lo-fi that it must rely almost entirely on its concepts, dialogue and performances to get by. That it manages this so enthrallingly is the considerable achievement of director Richard Schenkman (1996's minor indie splash "The Pompatus of Love"), star David Lee Smith and, in particular, writer Jerome Bixby.

Bixby is now a semi-forgotten name, but his small oeuvre exerted a disproportionate impact on the last century's science-fiction. His "Star Trek" segment "Requiem For Methuselah," featuring a human who claims to be 6,000 years old, was reworked into "The Man From Earth, " completed on the author's deathbed in 1998.

Bixby also wrote an episode of "The Twilight Zone," and "The Man From Earth" feels much more "Zone" than "Trek": set in a single location over a single day with production-values that might charitably be described as rudimentary. The $200,000-budgeted film has an off-puttingly rough video look and TV-movie feel that pretty much rule out any kind of conventional theatrical distribution. It's already made considerable impact via the file-sharing protocol BitTorrent and has proved an unlikely hit with attendees of the film-festival circuit's weirder reaches.

A group of small-town college-professors and one student gather to commemorate the departure of youthful-looking colleague John Oldman (Smith). When pressed on his motives, Oldman is evasive — until he impulsively "confesses" that he's actually been around for 14 millennia. His highbrow friends initially take this as an intellectual jeu d'esprit, but as the self-proclaimed "Cro-Magnon survivor" goes on with his wild, provocative chronicle, doubts start to creep in.

With technical contributions so basic, performances are crucial. While even these are notably uneven, Smith dominates with what is at times an extended monologue that helps the film, after a most unpromising opening, to gradually and stimulatingly build to a pitch of near-hypnotic intensity. Even if the clumsy final minutes abandon the carefully maintained air of ambiguity which otherwise prevails, this is only a minor flub in a picture which deserves wide exposure — and will be a major talking point wherever and however it's seen.

A Falling Sky Entertainment production

Cast: John Oldman: David Lee Smith; Harry: John Billingsley; Will: Richard Riehle; Sandy: Annika Peterson; Dan: Tony Todd.

Director: Richard Schenkman; Writer: Jerome Bixby; Producers: Richard Schenkman, Eric D Wilkinson; Executive Producers: Emerson Bixby, Mark Pellington; Director of Photography: Afshin Shahidi; Production Designer: Priscilla Elliott; Music: Mark Hinton Stewart; Co-producer: Robbie Bryan; Costume designer: Jill Kliber; Editor: Neil Grieve.

No MPAA rating, running time 87 minutes.