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We have discovered much about who we are as a species by digging in the dirt. For centuries, Man’s unique past has laid waiting to be unearthed, and for those who heed that call to discover what secrets await in the bedrock of history, the rewards come in increments, small fragments and puzzling pieces that sometimes take lifetimes to decipher . . . if at all. Imagine if there was a way to actually see the beginnings of mankind and observe it in real time. It’s been fodder for entertainment many times before and with Iceman, we get an honest attempt at what that might be like with scientific authenticity. Plus much more.
It starts in breathtaking fashion high up in the Arctic where mining explorers discover the body of a prehistoric man perfectly preserved in ice. They haul it by helicopter to a research base where anthropologist Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton) dates the body at 40,000 years and joins the scientific team in thawing the specimen. What they discover is all the more shocking. Due to the flash-freezing and a chemical process they can’t understand yet (that might involve a belly full of buttercups), the Neanderthal begins to show cellular stability and then brain activity and at last, a heart beat. The man is alive.
Directed by Fred Schepisi, Iceman starts as a standard science fiction story but quickly evolves into a morality tale about the very future of mankind. The scientific value of the Iceman, most especially what preserved him, lead discussions about how to extend modern man’s own lifespan. Some of the team want to cut him up and use him for the wealth of scientific advancements he surely possesses while Shepard is convinced that studying him alive would prove more valuable. He sees the Iceman, whom he comes to call “Charlie” (played with astonishing conviction by John Lone), as a tool to learn the past, something that will provide answers to long troubling questions and she more light on who we are and where we have come from.
Schepisi treats the story like a documentary for most of it, with long moments of Shepard and Charlie alone in a large vivarium-like enclosure meant to study bears. The two learn about each other, trying to communicate, making mistakes but developing a bond (these early moments of contact are reminiscent of footage of Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees). Shepard pulls in fellow scientist Diane Brady (Lindsay Crouse), hoping a female presence will bridge the gap, but the problem is that while Shepard works to earn trust, others perform medical tests, removing small parts of organs and taking samples of Charlie. This begins to have profound psychological effects on the caveman, so to speak. He becomes withdrawn and deeply affected by the sheltered life.
There are several dramatic moments amid all this, one especially where Charlie begs Shepard to end his life. It’s heartbreaking when you finally see what he is trying to convey. Despite the language barrier, it becomes clear many times what Charlie is thinking, and desiring. When he draws his family in the dirt, there’s no doubt what he asks Shepard to do. But when he catches a glimpse of a helicopter beyond the canopy above, everything they’ve worked for collapses as Charlie goes into a panicked trance like state. Shepard becomes convinced the Iceman has seen a god, a version of a mythical Inuit bird god that carries souls to heaven . . . or purgatory for sinners.
What John Lone does with Charlie is one the decade’s greatest performances, a tragic, deeply personal work that could easily have been parody but is instead genuinely compelling. The way he moves and the throaty, guttural vocalizations he speaks with give the character great authenticity while invoking sincere empathy. Schepisi occasionally has us peering out through Charlie’s eyes and it’s telling of how effective Lone is that when these moments happen, we feel tension and mistrust. Layered by Bruce Smeaton‘s astounding score, featuring the Japanese shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, there are moments that grip with harrowing effect.
The film leads us on a journey from science to mysticism as it begins with one and ends with the other. The brilliantly staged and performed opening salvo where science and medicine–crowded by dozens–work to bring life back from the dead yield by the film’s end, focused on a single man unmoved and unknowing of what it took to get him there. There is great metaphor in the final moments, most especially of the last image as the skies hold host to the last leg of Charlie’s odyssey. How much have we changed in the 40,000 years-gap between the Iceman and ourselves? This is a classic that will leave you wondering.