Thursday, November 10, 2011

Extraordinary Claims

Note: There are NO spoilers here. I don’t say anything about these movies that you don’t find out in the first few minutes.

I recently watched Happy Accidents (2000), starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio. It was on instant play, so I took a chance, and was pleasantly surprised. Here’s the premise in a nutshell: She meets him in the park and likes him. They start to date. He seems like he’s hiding something, though, and he’s also strangely clueless about everyday things. When she confronts him, he “confesses” that he’s from the future—hundreds of years in the future—and that he’s come back through time to find her.

Because there’s an implication of time travel, this sometimes gets categorized as science fiction, which is how it got into my “recommended” list, but there are no time machines or fancy special effects. This is a romantic comedy-drama, mostly, but it’s also a movie of ideas.

The movie is well-acted, and is more subtle and profound than you might expect. Personally, watching Marisa Tomei for almost two hours is reason enough to see the movie, but that’s just me (actually, I think it’s a lot of people).

What I really want to tell you about, though, is the movie that this movie reminded me of. That movie—one of my favorites—also features a man making an extraordinary claim.

In The Man from Earth (2007), professor John Oldman has decided to leave his tenured position and move on. Some friends and colleagues come over to see him off and have a few drinks. They grill him about his reasons for leaving, and about what he plans to do next. After some hesitation, he poses a hypothetical question: "What if a man from the upper paleolithic survived until the present day? What would he be like?" Given that his colleagues are experts in various fields, they can actually take a stab at answering this question. Oldman suggests that he's researching for a science fiction novel, but he ends up claiming that he is, in fact, such a man.

Most of the “action” in this movie takes place in a living room. It’s a group conversation about hypothetical possibilities and consequences. Some of the characters treat Oldman's claim as an intellectual game; others are annoyed or upset by it. This movie has good actors, but no superstars, which is all the better. It says something when a movie can keep you riveted for an hour and a half with a continuous conversation.

If that doesn’t sound exciting to you, I suggest you try it. It’s on Netflix’s instant play, and if you’re not hooked in 10 minutes, then it’s not for you. If it is for you, though, you’ll be thinking about this one for days. I just checked to confirm that it’s still on instant play (it is); I started it, and I was totally hooked, again.

The Man from Earth
was written by Jerome Bixby, who wrote a ton of science fiction short stories and a few scripts for Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. One of the four Trek episodes he wrote was “Requiem for Methuselah.” Great title, isn’t it? In this episode, the Enterprise crew encounters a man who, they eventually discover, is six thousand years old, and who has been many well-known people during those years. Apparently Mr. Bixby, whose own time on earth ended in 1998, wanted to give this idea a more thorough treatment.