Film Review: The Man from Earth: Holocene

College students try to uncover the secrets of a mysterious teacher in this offbeat, if not entirely successful, philosophical sci-fi picture.
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University professor John Young (David Lee Smith), a Buddhist who teaches comparative religion and lives with fellow instructor Carolyn (Vanessa Williams), is unmistakably erudite and well-liked by his students and other faculty members, but he's also decidedly eccentric, fond of solitary camping trips, picking up trash by the highways and indulging in occasional hints that he might be older then he looks. Much, much older…or so students Isabel (Akemi Look) and her friends, frisky Tara (Brittany Curran), deeply religious Philip (Sterling Knight) and excitable Liko (Carlos Knight), come to believe.

As the Christmas season (portentously) approaches, Isabel stumbles across a book called The Longest Night by once-reputable archeologist Dr. Arthur Jenkins (William Katt), who torpedoed his own career by committing to paper his apparent belief that Young is a 14,000-year-old caveman and might also be none other than Jesus Christ. Isabel is fascinated, if not yet quite ready to believe—you get the feeling she welcomes anything that will distract her from her mother's high-pressure phone calls—and Tara has hot pants for the handsome Young, so she's willing to go along with Isabel's high-spirited sleuthing. The guys are basically along for the ride, though the pious Philip doesn't believe for a second that Young might be the second coming of Jesus.

A decidedly offbeat mix of science fiction and religious speculation, The Man From Earth: Holocene (as in the era, which includes all of human history) is the ten-years-later sequel to cult film The Man From Earth, the final work written by the late Jerome Bixby, whose credits include episodes of the original “Star Trek”and co-authorship of the story on which cult favorite Fantastic Voyage (1966) was based. Those are some impressive bona fides—Bixby's son, Emerson, picks up the story here—but The Man From Earth: Holocene is a decidedly clunky example of the kind of science fiction that prompts non-fans to suggest that the genre's target age is 12.

At the same time, its gee-whiz quality belongs to an earlier era of speculative fiction, one that flourished before audiences started skewing older and more attracted to the dark and nihilistic (with the possible exception of the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” a deliberate exercise in gentle 1980s nostalgia). All of which is to say that it's hard to pin down the film's target demographic: It's almost squeaky-clean—even Tara's tartiness is pretty harmless, all talk and no action—and yet likely to offend the faith-based demographic that might otherwise have been open to its vision of a college community filled with studious yet fun-loving young people who don't swear, drink, take drugs, have sex or actively mock religion by making John Young a Buddhist with animist inclinations. And yet it's hard not to wish The Man From Earth well, if only for being guided so firmly by its own star.

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