'The Man From Earth: Holocene': Film Review

Courtesy of Falling Sky Entertainment
Cro-Magnon saga takes an evolutionary downturn.

David Lee Smith, Vanessa Williams and Michael Dorn star in Richard Schenkman's sci-fi sequel.

One of the more original sci-fi indies of the 2000s gets an unexpected sequel in The Man From Earth: Holocene, director-writer-producer Richard Schenkman's intriguing but underwhelming follow-up to the microbudgeted mindblower The Man From Earth (2007). Once again starring David Lee Smith as an ordinary-looking dude who is actually some 14,000 years old, this second installment works best when it adheres to the talk-heavy template set by the original, written by respected Star Trek and Twilight Zone contributor Jerome Bixby.

The enduring sleeper/cult status of the first picture will guarantee a measure of attention in niche theatrical and fantasy-oriented festival play, but this fitfully engaging affair only really passes muster as a potential pilot for small-screen continuations. Having premiered at Los Angeles' Dances With Films festival in June, the film opens Friday in limited engagements in Pasadena and New York.

Familiarity with The Man From Earth is a definite advantage in getting to grips with the philosophical and practical elements of Holocene, which never manages to explain how the individual here calling himself "John Young" (Smith) has managed to survive from the Cro-Magnon era. Such crucial aspects are discussed at considerable length in the first movie, a 90-minute gabfest set almost exclusively in a single room populated almost exclusively by academics, and which was aptly described by one critic as the "My Dinner With Andre of the sci-fi world."

Schenkman, again handling directorial duties (and also collaborating on the screenplay with the late Bixby's son Emerson), tries to "open up" the proceedings with extremely variable results.Holocene ironically inverts the usual critique leveled at sci-fi escapades, in that the chat-dominated scenes work much better than anything remotely resembling action.

When we first see Young, he's a very popular teacher of comparative religion at a community college in Chico, California. Admired by his boss Gil (Michael Dorn), he's seemingly content with his girlfriend Carolyn (Vanessa Williams). But our ruggedly handsome hero adheres strictly to a long-standing regimen by which he severs all ties and moves on roughly once per decade, thus minimizing the chances of his Big Secret being discovered. He's preparing for his next flit when four of his students — Isabel (Akemi Look), Tara (Brittany Curran), Liko (Carlos Knight) and Philip (Sterling Knight) — gradually piece together various clues and stumble toward an unbelievable truth.

The religious aspects of John's 14-century existence, which involves both Jesus Christ and the Buddha, prove particularly traumatizing for Philip, a straight-arrow, devout Christian. The strongest sequence in Holocene is the one most reminiscent of the original Man From Earth, an extended two-hander in which the distraught Philip interrogates John about certain theological matters and their problematic implications.

But where the first pic operated audaciously on a purely cerebral level throughout, the sequel indulges in melodramatics, histrionics and plot contrivances which work consistently against its strengths. Williams, Star Trek alumnus Dorn and the returning Katt nevertheless cope reasonably well with underwritten roles, while the standout among the somewhat grating Nancy Drew-like younger quartet is Look as the smart, energetic Isabel.

But the real rock upon which the film is built is once again Smith, who nimbly walks the shaky lines of plausibility which underpin (and sometimes undermine) the screenplay. Charismatic but unassuming, Young wears his quasi-immortality with beguiling insouciance. The actor has visibly aged in the interim, of course, which requires some explaining given John's previous immunity to the ravages of time. Schenkman and Bixby junior come up with quite a nifty solution to this problem, laying the groundwork (via a clunky, overlong mid-credits "tag") for possible future updates.

As with the first film, technical aspects are blandly functional. Mark Hinton Stewart's score is strictly cookie-cutter stuff, near-incessantly deployed and especially distracting in a production which plays strongest as a vehicle for verbal exchanges. It's a shame, given the fact that juvenile-oriented, effects-driven extravaganzas are if anything even more crushingly dominant than a decade ago. Science fiction has arguably never been more in need of a franchise which — in the manner of the genre's golden-age television typified by Bixby Sr. — unapologetically foregrounds concept and intelligent debate over empty spectacle. Back to the future, indeed.

Production company: Falling Sky Entertainment
Cast: David Lee Smith, Akemi Look, Vanessa Williams, Sterling Knight, William Katt, Michael Dorn, John Billingsley, Brittany Curran, Carlos Knight
Director: Richard Schenkman
Screenwriters: Emerson Bixby, Richard Schenkman (story by Eric D Wilkinson, Richard Schenkman)
Producers: Richard Schenkman, Eric D. Wilkinson
Executive producers: Emerson Bixby, Jack Hanan, Isaac Hanan, Adam Hanan
Cinematographer: Richard Vialet
Production designer: Sally Courtois
Costume designer: Katherine Hegarty
Editor: Bobby K. Richardson
Composer: Mark Hinton Stewart
Casting director: Shannon Makhanian
Sales: Falling Sky Entertainment, New York

98 minutes