So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.
The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?
Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.
Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.
One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.
They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.
Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.
There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.
And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.
On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.
First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984
The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.