Sci-Fi Sundays returns with Jonathon Dabell reviewing Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984) starring Timothy Hutton and John Lone.
Iceman was released in 1984 and is quite unusual for its time in that it is a sci-fi story with no laser guns, spaceships, or malevolent aliens. It is slightly similar to E.T: The Extra Terretrial (1982) on a thematic level, since it deals with the discovery of an extraordinary being and the subsequent efforts of an ordinary man to protect him from the intrusive glare of the outside world. Plot-wise it is pretty different from E.T, though. The concept of a strange being trying to adapt and survive in a world totally alien to what he is accustomed to hasn’t been used all that often in the movies (and not always very successfully) – E.T., Iceman, Howard The Duck and Mac And Me jump out as fairly well-known examples from the 80s – but it’s an idea that has a lot going for it. In some ways films like these almost belong within a sub-genre all of their own – the ‘humanist sci-fi fable’ for want of a better name.
Arctic explorers discover a perfectly preserved Neanderthal man encased in ice. They take him to a scientific research station where they thaw him out. Amazingly, the iceman’s vital organs have remained in a state of hibernation during his 40,000 years in the ice, and soon he awakens. The scientists believe they have found a unique specimen – a being who they can study to develop their understanding of cryogenics and how to freeze terminally ill people until a cure for their condition is found – but one scientist, Shephard (Timothy Hutton), fears that they are overlooking a crucial fact: the fact that the iceman (John Lone) is a human.
He befriends the Neanderthal, named Charlie (he gets this name because his primal roars sounds similar to the word Charlie). Soon, Shephard realises that Charlie is never going to be able to understand that he has been asleep for thousands of years; in fact, he is still trying to find his family and tribespeople. He has simply woken up and can have no possible grasp of the fact that his nearest and dearest have been dead for thousands of years. The iceman is also obsessed with completing a mythical quest he began 40,000 years ago. Shephard is appalled at the way Charlie is exploited for research purposes, and ponders whether to release him into the Arctic wilderness to carry on leading the life he was accustomed to all those centuries ago.
Iceman tells its story in a measured slow-burning manner, but it’s a rewarding story for those who stick with it. Hutton gives a credible performance as the lone scientist prepared to forsake the scientific value of his remarkable discovery in order to “do the right thing”. However the performance everyone will come away from the film remembering most vividly is that of John Lone. Lone’s interpretation of the Neanderthal is haunting, authentic and remarkable in its physicality – another genuine example of Hollywood overlooking an Oscar-worthy piece of acting. He is simply incredible as the titular ‘freak’.
Fred Schepisi – at first glance an unusual choice for the directorial duties – handles the film in a subtle, low-key manner, skilfully avoiding the temptation to make his film a soppy commercial popcorn flick. Instead he concentrates on the ethical and human dilemma within the story, and generates a thoughtful movie which never feels the need to resort to typical sci-fi/exploitation tactics. It retains its intelligence and dignity throughout – Iceman is a moving and powerful film, and in some ways an important one too. Ian Baker’s splendid cinematography adds to the film’s general classiness.
Ignore the laser-brainers who dismiss this film as boring. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Iceman is never boring. Give it a try.
MoM Rating: 7/10