A ‘What If’ Story That Asks Where We Came From, and Who We Are



Iceman is the story of a Neanderthal who’s found frozen within a glacier by a group of scientists. When they thaw him out, he is somehow still alive. The movie becomes centered around the ethical debate on whether they can experiment medically on a man who can have no understanding of what is being done to him. It’s a compelling story of the need to recognize the humanity in others, moved along propulsively by energetic direction and magnetic performances. 

The movie begins with the block of ice containing the iceman being transported to the science base where it will be examined in detail. The team includes Dr. Brady (Lindsay Crouse), Dr. Singe (David Strathairn), Whitman (Joseph Sommer), Loomis (Danny Glover), and Maynard (James Tolkan). When they discover that the iceman is still alive, they bring in Dr. Shepard, an anthropologist played by Timothy Hutton. Shepard becomes the iceman’s primary advocate, and as Shepard and the iceman interact and learn from one another, Shepard becomes something of a friend.

The iceman himself, who’s name we will come to learn is ‘Char-u’ (which Shepard insists on pronouncing as ‘Charlie’. Come on, Doc!), is played by John Lone. If you’re a fan of sweeping, Oscar-winning, historical dramas, you’ll recognize Lone as the man who played the adult Emperor is Bertalucci’s The Last Emperor. He’s also in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon and was the antagonist Shiwan Khan in The Shadow. Lone was trained in a Beijing Opera School as a child. This was a punishing and brutal regimen, but the skills he would learn there would be instrumental to his performance in Iceman

Lone’s performance as Char-u is the heart of the movie, and we’re on his side from the start. 

Though Char-u can speak, his vocal tract isn’t as developed as modern humans (we have a better understanding of Neanderthal anatomy today, and believe they were as capable of speech as Homo Sapiens). Lone’s role, then, is played mostly through body language. He needs to convey Char-u’s wants and concerns through his actions and facial expressions. The wonderful makeup design by Michael Westmore (he worked on 2010, The Star Trek Next Gen movies, and won an Oscar for Mask) gives Lone a ‘primitive’ appearance, but doesn’t hide the actor’s face, or his expressive eyes. Lone’s performance as Char-u is the heart of the movie, and we’re on his side from the start. 

The scientists led by Dr. Brady think that whatever chemical exists in Char-u’s blood could be used as a preservative to stabilize dying patients until they can get the treatment they need to save their life. They argue that the needs of the many outweigh… yadda, yadda, yadda.  But none of them are presented as outright villains. Their viewpoint is presented and discussed, and the pros and cons are debated. Shepard is the only one arguing that Char-u should be given as much consideration in the matter as any other human, but nobody is unsympathetic to Char-u’s plight as a man out of time.

Iceman‘s director, Fred Schepisi, is an Australian who got his start with his semi-autobiographical feature The Devil’s Playground in 1976. In 1982, he came to America to make the western Barbarossa (with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey). Iceman was the followup to that. It was a script that was floating around Hollywood for many years (Norman Jewison was attached as director at one point, and is still credited as a producer on the finished film). Schepisi isn’t a ‘genre director,’ his films run the gamut from comedy (Roxanne, Mr. Baseball) to spy thrillers (The Russia House) to heavy drama (Plenty, Evil Angels, Eye of the Storm) and everything in between. But he’s clearly a director who works well with actors and can get good to great performances out of them, and that’s the key to Iceman working. There’s not a lot of action in the movie — many scenes consist of people sitting in a room talking things out, and one is a memorable duet between a scientist singing “Heart of Gold,” and a Neanderthal chanting — but the movie is riveting and the questions it raises are compelling. 

Iceman was released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, under their ‘Studio Classics’ label. It comes packaged with two feature-length audio commentaries. One is by Schepisi, and it’s always a good thing when we get commentary from one of the filmmakers. The other comes from film critic and author Peter Tonguette. A theatrical trailer for the film is also included, alongside a small collection of trailers for related titles.