*****14,000 YEARS OF SPOILERS!!*****
In The Beginning…
After reviewing “The Man From Earth” (2007) only a week or so ago, and doing a retrospective on “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) shortly afterward, you might think I was on a caveman binge lately, but no, it wasn’t intentional. However, after reviewing “The Man From Earth”, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed the scrappy, low-budget campfire tale of immortal college professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) who has been a singular constant through the last 14,000 years of human history; leaving the frozen plains of ancient France, studying under the Buddha, seeding the foundational myths of the man later known as Jesus (!), and eventually winding up as a college professor at a California college. John has a big problem; the fact that he hasn’t aged for the last 14 millennia means he can only remain in one place for 10 years or so before the locals realize he isn’t like them.
The screenplay was the last thing written by the late Jerome Bixby (“Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek”) before his death in 1998, and was completed by his son Emerson before being shot as a micro-budget indie film by director Richard Schenkman in 2007. That film saw John leaving his latest teaching gig, but not before his colleagues crashed his getaway and threw him an unexpected going away party… a party where John makes the fateful decision to tell everyone the truth. Taking place in one home over one evening, the little movie is absolutely spellbinding. John’s word pictures of his epic past tell the story far more effectively than any cheesy “In Search Of”-style flashbacks ever could—it’s as if he were a caveman again, telling his tale around the campfire. The climax of the movie has most of John’s friends believing he’d pranked them (as he hoped they would). However, one of his guests is left seriously offended, and another tragically realizes that John is his long-lost father just before he dies of a heart attack. The ending sees John once again moving on, as he’s done for the last 14,000 years, but with a would-be lover in tow.
Now director Richard Schenkman has directed and cowritten the sequel, bringing back star David Lee Smith as John (now going by the last name of “Young”), as well as costars William Kat (“Art Jenkins”) and a cameo by John Billingsley (“Harry”). Schenkman makes a few serious misfires by taking the story away from its intimate, intellectual, campfire story-feel and placing it in a sunny college town, with the focus placed on a young ‘Scooby gang’ of college kids (cast from “Cliches R Us”) who learn the truth about their favorite professor.
“The Man From Earth: Holocene.”
“Holocene” takes place ten years after that fateful, revelatory evening of the first film. We see John (David Lee Smith), now going by the last name of ‘Young’ (another pun-name) living as a successful history professor in another California college town, where he keeps his students enthralled with his vivid, seemingly firsthand accounts of history. John is living with another professor named Carolyn (Vanessa Williams), whom he’s not told of his past lives as Cro-Magnon, Buddha-protege and savior of the Christian religion. And finally, for the first time in his 14,000 years, John is showing lines on his face and even some graying hair. He’s aging.
Note: Nice way to explain away the fact that the actor, who was about 53 at the time of the shoot, doesn’t look anywhere near 35 anymore. The exact reason behind John’s sudden aging is never revealed. Also, I still can’t believe that in all those years, John never went for a blood test or even an insurance physical. His DNA would be on record somewhere. I once gave blood back in 1987, and I learned that donation was still on file as of two years ago.
John, comfortable in his new life, has earned the trust of the college dean, Dr. Gil Parker. When Gil learns he is going to be a granddad, he and John take to the campus bleachers and share a drink of an old, badly aged bottle of Scotch. It’s a short moment that reminisces about mortality, continuance and how fleetingly wonderful life can be. It’s perhaps the only scene in the movie that comes remotely close to the eloquence of the first film. Sadly, it too, is fleeting.
Note: Michael Dorn, of course, played the Klingon Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and five of the Star Trek feature films. This movie series has a knack for casting Star Trek talent, such as John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise), Vanessa Williams (Deep Space Nine, “Let He Who Is Without Sin”) and Tony Todd (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, both as Worf’s brother Kurn, as well as an older Jake Sisko in “The Visitor”).
Also of Note: This sequel also moves dangerously closer to the classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “Long Live Walter Jameson” (1960), which also featured a popular, immortal college professor (Kevin McCarthy) whose past catches up to him. By setting much of this story at the college instead of John’s home, the sequel teeters on borderline plagiarism. John even has an ‘older friend,’ Gil; who, like Walter’s old friend (and would-be father-in-law) Sam, is badly hurt by his immortal friend’s decisions.
Four of his students take an unusually keen interest in their professor. Isabel (Akemi Look) is a bit of a teacher’s pet, who thinks John is somehow ‘different’ but can’t quite figure out exactly why. Isabel’s bestie Tara (Brittany Curran) is the cliched ‘school slut’ who uses feminine wiles to get what she wants (“Easy A,” but without the laughs). Affable, easygoing Liko (Carlos Knight) is best buds with Philip (Sterling Knight), an uptight Christian fundamentalist who is very defensive when it comes to his faith (he’s the prior movie’s “Edith” reimagined as a young white male).
While’s Tara’s libido is her primary motivation in getting to know Prof. Young a little better, Isabel is motivated more by genuine curiosity, picking up on subtle clues during his lectures. The kids invade their professor’s private life in very uncomfortable ways, including unannounced at-home visits for extracurricular ‘advice’ (not cool). There are too few boundaries between these kids (who act more like high school students) and the objection of their obsession; it’s downright creepy at times. The kids’ inexplicable curiosity about their inscrutable teacher leads them to do a little homework of their own; they find out that he has no record anywhere prior to 2007, and by snooping through his home, they discover he has a very interesting largely self-authored book collection, including a copy of a book by disgraced archeologist Dr. Art Jenkins (William Katt), which wrote of his night spent listening to John’s spellbinding tale of his 14,000 year life… from cavemen to theological savior to college professor.
Note: The scenes of the students awkwardly trying to take selfies with John, breaking into his home, and even pilfering through his belongings was truly disturbing for me, personally. Full disclosure: I was stalked once, and it was an awful, invasive feeling I’d not soon revisit. Seeing this de facto Scooby gang violating John’s boundaries onscreen was nearly triggering for me, and I immediately lost all sympathy for them.
Fundamentalist Philip is most disturbed by a passage of the book (autographed to “my good friend, John Oldman”) which claims that surviving French caveman John was (among other identities) the man later known as Jesus of Nazareth. Isabel is immediately awed; she thinks that John could be a reservoir of wisdom the world could use right now. Liko is healthily skeptical, but intrigued. Tara just wonders what it’d be like to get horizontal with the founder of Christianity.
Note: Like Edith in the first film, Philip seems more concerned that John’s story, if true, would be more of a threat to his fragile belief system than anything else. Philip’s counterarguments to ready-made-worshipper Isabel are supposed to appear ‘sensible’, but he comes off as frightened and defensive.
Armed with little more than a single book and some biographical data that don’t quite add up, Isabel tries to make contact with curmudgeonly loner Dr. Art Jenkins (William Katt), who says he requires a good photograph of John before he’s convinced to drive all the way down from his home in the Arizona ‘burbs. The gang takes a photo of a sleeping John from his bedroom window (yikes) and it is enough ‘proof’ to get Art off his ass and into his shabby little car for the hours-long drive to California.
Note: Art was one of the most skeptical of Johns’ friends in the 2007 movie, so it makes very little sense that he would be the one to write a ‘tell-all’ book about his ‘good friend’ John. If anything, his book would’ve debunked the story, not corroborate it. Little explanation is offered for how and why Art went from angry, hardcore skeptic to true believer. It also makes no sense that he would sign a copy of his book to “my good friend John Oldman.” When did he see John again after their departure? It seemed pretty clear that whenever John moves on, he doesn’t look back.
Going off to search for her own ‘truth,’ Tara makes a clumsy pass at John in his office, foolishly alerting him to the fact that she “knows” who he really is—which is all John needs to get into his old habit of quickly departing before discovery. Tara tearfully tells her friends that she may have accidentally let slip that they’re onto John, and that he might be trying to leave right now. Isabel realizes they have to act before John flees once again.
Realizing he might be ID’d, John quits his post at the college, greatly upsetting his friend Gil, who was clearly grooming John as his eventual replacement. That night John also breaks the news to Carolyn that he has to leave her, right now, with no explanation. He tries to sooth her broken heart, but to no avail. She is devastated and understandably pissed at John’s callous dumping of her, as she bitterly storms out of the house.
Note: In the 2007 film, John had a twenty something girlfriend named Sandy (Annika Peterson) who went with him at the end of the film. She knew his full story and yet she stayed with him. What happened to her? Did she get hit by a truck? Did she learn some new unsavory detail about John’s 14,000 year past? Did she leave him for a younger (any) man? She is never referenced in the sequel, save for fleeting glimpses (via flashback footage) from the original movie.
Alone in his home, John is met by his inept student stalkers in the driveway, as they awkwardly attempt to convince him not to leave. When he refuses, Liko whips out a taser and stuns him. John collapses and hits his head on a driveway landscaping rock (ouch!). Worried that they’ve killed him, they quickly realize the unconscious professor is still breathing, so they decide to tie him to a chair with duct tape in his garage until he regains consciousness. During the melee, Art calls Isabel’s cellphone and tells her that his car broken down on the highway, about an hour away. This none-too-bright Scooby gang decides to leave Christian fundamentalist-Philip in charge of the Man Who Would Be the King of Kings, while the rest of them go to retrieve Art and bring him down for a positive ID on John.
Note: In a movie filled with “Three’s Company”-style bad ideas, this is one of the worst; Philip clearly has the greatest issues with John reputedly being Jesus, yet he is left in charge of “Him” (?!). And why do all three of the remaining kids have to go and pick up Art? Why not have Isabel and Liko go, leaving Tara to stay with the clearly disturbed Philip? But nope—common sense and this movie remain total strangers.
In the basement of his own home, John awakens with blood streaking down his scalp (he doesn’t heal as fast anymore, either), and the sight of Philip standing nearby with a knife (in very unthreatening-looking khaki shorts). Philip, still having a hard time accepting that John once lived as Jesus waffles between belief and disbelief; one moment asking about the details of John’s life while decrying him as “the Great Deceiver” the next (aka the dreaded “AntiChrist“). John tries desperately to cool the unstable young man’s temperature by asking him ‘what would Jesus do’? When Philip accuses him of spouting “liberal lies” all bets are off, and before John can fully make his case for freedom, the nutty young man plunges a knife into the bound professor’s abdomen. A wide-eyed Philip is horrified to realize he may have just committed homicide, and completely loses his s#!t.
Note: The scene between Philip and the captive John could’ve been the most interesting scene of the movie, as a believer is confronted with the man who might be the very source of his religion. The scene tries to be deep and profound, but is sadly undercut by Sterling Knight’s inconsistent performance as Philip, which alternates between genuine guilt and cliched psychotic tics. And none of this ‘new’ information about John’s time as Jesus is anything we didn’t already infer from the first film. One of the most maddening aspects of this sequel is that we never learn any of the thousands of other identities John might have lived—instead, the movie blows its wad on the Jesus story, feeling at times like a half-baked agnostic answer to one of those dreadful “God Is Not Dead” movies.
The inept Scooby gang returns with Art, and they discover the house is now a crime scene. John has escaped…his truck is gone, and there is no sign of Philip. Oh, and there’s a trail of blood leading from the basement to the driveway. Either a bleeding John somehow made it to his truck after Philip ran away, or John killed Philip and took the body away in his truck. Either way, it’s never explained.
A few days later we see Art, back at home in Arizona, getting a knock on his door from a mysterious, Men-In-Black style federal agent looking for John Oldman, presumably in connection with the possible abduction/murder of Philip. It turns out John Oldman/Young has been on the government’s radar for awhile. The plot thickens…and then stops.
Note: There is heavy mythology-building in this movie, with an unexplained disappearance of Philip, John’s aging, and even a Man in Black so heavily backlit we never get a clear look at his face. The seeds are clearly being planted for another sequel, but given that it took ten years for this one to materialize? I’m not holding my breath.
The credits begin, but we cut to a Marvel movie-style mid-credits coda which sees John camping out in what looks like Vasquez Rocks (the popular Star Trek locale). John has a thick, iron-gray beard now (looking more like Moses than Jesus), and we see a car pulling up to his camp in the wilderness. Out of the car steps John’s friend Harry (John Billingsley), who’s received John’s handwritten letter (a terribly outmoded form of communication these days), and he promptly arrives with clothes, food as well as an offer for John to stay at his place. John accepts, but Harry asks his friend for a favor first—his father is dying from cancer, and Harry asks if John would take a look at him. They leave together.
Note: John Billingsley’s presence in the movie is both very welcome and too short, but what most disturbs me about it was Harry asking John to “take a look” at his dying cancer-stricken dad; what is the hope here exactly…? That John might cure Harry’s dad with a healing touch? Has Harry gone full fundamentalist too? Of all the guests in the 2007 film, the flippant Harry seemed healthily agnostic toward John’s story. Now he thinks John can help his dad with super-holistic healing powers? Forgive the blasphemy, but Jeeeezus. This series is starting to look more and more like a bad Kirk Cameron/Dean Cain movie. Yes, the production values in “Holocene” are better than the scrappier, more intimate 2007 movie, but it’s also nearly devoid of that movie’s intelligence and gentle humanism. The extra $100,000 in this film’s budget was clearly spent on video quality and locations—not a better script.
The Man Who Fell To Earth (hard).
“Holocene” is one of those sequels that should never have been, or perhaps handed off to writers who could’ve kept the late Jerome Bixby’s fragile mythology afloat. Without Jerome Bixby’s grace, Schenkman’s “Scooby Doo” approach to the material falls painfully flat. None of his young characters sound like real college kids; they sound like a middle-aged producer’s imagining of what college-age kids sound like today. Unlike the colorful, eccentric faculty members who populated the first film, these kids are all stereotypes; smart, overachieving Asian girl Isabel (Akemi Look), school slut Tara (Brittany Curran), wisecracking black kid Liko (Carlos Knight) and pasty-faced Christian fundamentalist Philip (Sterling Knight).
It doesn’t help that the young cast play almost everything at sitcom-level. Isabel, Tara, Liko and Philip end up as caricatures, not people. Even a minor mixup of the group’s pedestrian dynamics might’ve been interesting; what if a black girl was the leader of the group? What if an Asian boy was the ‘hip’ one? What if the Christian fundamentalist were Catholic instead of predictably white-bread Protestant? I applaud Schenkman for appearing to strive for diversity, but using his diverse cast as cliched stereotypes retards that ambition.
With the young cast taking so much of the focus away from John, we learn surprisingly little new about our immortal protagonist in this film, other than he appears to be aging (without explanation of course, like nearly every idea raised in this film). Even John’s heart-to-heart with crazed fundamentalist Philip (as his hostage) tells us nothing new about John’s experiences during his time as ‘Jesus’. We only hear regurgitations of ideas and events which were made perfectly clear in the 2007 film (he likes fireplaces, he moves on every ten years, he lived as Jesus, yada, yada, yada). Everything we see of John in the sequel, other than his unexplained aging, is a reiteration. John, as a character, remains indecipherable.
The returning character of ‘disgraced’ archeologist Dr. Art Jenkins (William Katt) is supposed to be some kind of disgraced, laughing-stock loser. Yet he lives in a surprisingly nice home for a ‘failure.’ In fact, his lovely two-story house (and pet pig) seems very much at odds with his crappy old car, which fails to make the trek from his desert home in Arizona to California. I get that we’re supposed to buy that John somehow “ruined” Art’s life, but Art doesn’t live like a failure. I would’ve better accepted that Art was a “loser” if we saw him drinking his lunch away in a seedy, rundown apartment somewhere, but nope—he’s got a shiny, two-story desert oasis home and a pet pig. And why would Art autograph a copy of his book to “my good friend John Oldman” if he blames John for ruining his life? And just how did John get Art to sign a copy if they never saw each other again after the first film? These aren’t nitpicks— they’re sloppy screenwriting.
While John Billingsley’s appearance as biologist Harry in the post-credits coda sequence was certainly welcome, it was too little, too late. Schenkman is clearly setting up for a sequel, or perhaps a streaming series, that may (or may not) answer some dangling plot threads, such as whether John is going to die, or if John killed Philip to escape, or if John is off to magically ‘heal’ Harry’s ailing father (I don’t even want to think about how badly that one might go).
After this disappointing sequel, I doubt if the current keepers of Jerome Bixby’s flame can answer any such questions truthfully or satisfyingly. I’d rather see this once-intriguing immortal man saga end without resolution than continue down this plodding road.
“The Man From Earth: Holocene” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime (free) and YouTube streaming rental/download ($3.99 and up). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 445,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spread coronavirus). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe!