Based on an original story by John Drimmer (who subsequently co-wrote the screenplay with Chip Proser), Iceman takes place in the Artic region, where a drilling team finds what they suspect to be a man encased in ice. When it’s returned to the nearby base it’s indeed discovered that what the scientists are looking at is a perfectly preserved 40,000 year-old Neanderthal man. Dr. Diane Brady (Lindsay Crouse) and her surgical team prepare to carry out research on the body in a bid to seek out what the cause of his perfectly kept state could be, but their plans are soon thwarted when after the initial thawing process the body shows signs of life.
With the iceman now revived and placed into a biosphere, which once housed bears, anthropologist Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton) is called in to offer his opinions on the mysterious fellow, while the powers that be mull over what to do about the whole situation. Shephard is disturbed by the fact that those around him want to use the subject for medical science, stressing that he’s still a man, and one that we should be learning about from a historical perspective instead. He suggests that he be allowed to communicate with the iceman, who he eventually names “Charlie” (John Lone) and thus try to unravel the mysteries of man’s past. Sure enough Shephard finds himself with a new friend in Charlie, but soon he’ll find himself at war with the powers that be as Charlie’s mental state begins to show signs of disintegration.
With DNA research continually opening new areas for scientists to explore, much can be made by the way of moral debate. This is where we find Iceman as it attempts to truthfully raise certain ethical questions with regards to who ultimately triumphs and who loses in the face of pioneering medical research. Granted, the film is almost 25 years old, but its relevance in light of today’s climate is one of high significance. The idea of literally taking a piece of history and studying it to improve future medicine is certainly an interesting topic to lead us into, paving the way for a manner of scientific conjectures involving anthropology, whereby theory and philosophical reasoning dominate the proceedings throughout Fred Schepisi’s feature. There’s certainly enough here for a larger than life morality tale, and sure enough the film treats its subject matter with utmost seriousness - but its director never overdoes it by falling into pretentious sanctimony; he carefully explores his subjects and executes the tale with complete conviction.
Iceman, despite running for a slim 100 minutes, is a methodically structured piece of work. It covers an awful lot of ground, even through some arguably lingering moments: from the tensely staged surgical scenes which create an enormous sense of wonder, to its contemplative show-stealing moments involving Shephard and Charlie communicating with one another. And yet it does find the time to briefly steer away and provide small doses of humour; not only from the amazing interaction between our two leads, but also with regards to tertiary characters, such as James Tolkan and his sardonic wit, and Danny Glover in his first major feature taking on a slightly twitchy analyst. Indeed, let it not be said that Iceman is a depressing tale of corporate greed and moral angst but rather an uplifting experience, despite careering toward an inevitably doomed end for a man we begin to care for. Though tragic in some way its denouement is a suitably cathartic one that sees the human spirit triumph above all obstacles.
Much of the film’s credibility - and indeed faith - hinges on John Lone’s absolutely terrific portrayal of Charlie: a lost soul, fearful of having been punished for neglecting his long departed family and who is now, in his own way, seeking spiritual freedom. While Timothy Hutton and Lindsay Crouse are certainly effective as the film’s opposing voices of reason, it’s Lone’s central performance which binds everything together, drawing us into a stunning character study which successfully runs in tandem alongside the film’s greater message. Lone, who is totally unrecognisable under a layer of impressive make-up from Michael Westmore, imbues his character with a tremendous amount of compassion, when frankly he could have inadvertently taken the comedy route; in fact the concept itself may initially appear somewhat silly by its very description (it’s had its fair share of parodies). It’s remarkable to watch him unleash this kind of raw energy, in addition to expressing such wide-eyed innocence and curiosity toward a technically foreign landscape. We become accustomed to his pain and frustration; the lack of knowledge in his surroundings and the questions that he has buried so deeply, which he struggles to ask Hutton on many an occasion. It’s undoubtedly one of - if not the - highlight of his career, which is made all the more frustrating given that he never received any accolades for it. But of course Hutton is no less an important figurehead here, and arguably it’s the moments shared between both he and Lone which grabs our undivided attention, enabling us to go through a range of emotions as Charlie’s situation becomes all the more desperate.
Shot in Scope (as with all of Schepisi’s features, barring Libido and The Devil’s Playground) in Churchill, Manitoba - British Columbia, the film manages to offer a natural depiction of the Artic surrounds it seeks to imitate. Schepisi once more employs the services of his frequent Cinematographer Ian Baker (who has worked with the director on all but Last Orders), while Bruce Smeaton also comes on board again to provide a beautifully haunting score. And Iceman does feel all the more grand for it; featuring both stunning set designs and outdoor locations it’s a visual feast from start to finish, showcasing a tremendous amount of teamwork in order to bring to life a fascinating piece of storytelling.
Iceman had a previous DVD release at the end of December 2004 in the USA. Shockingly MCA/Universal had put out one of its own movies with a bog standard 1.33:1 ratio (presumably struck from the similar 1985 VHS release), and as my good colleague Gary Couzens says “You do not want to watch a Fred Schepisi film panned and scanned.” How true. In fact I’ve made do with the ol’ BBC2 showing, which they used to do every now and then a few years ago. So let’s see how things shape up today.
I admit that I feared the worst after being somewhat disparaged by Arrow Films’s awful release of Tokyo Decadence. With Iceman being one of my very faves I’m happy to say that the company has done a great job in transferring the film to DVD. We’re looking at a proper PAL transfer (hence the 96 min run time), which has also been given, at last, a solid 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation. Aside from edge enhancement, which is mostly evident during outdoor shots, there’s very little else to worry about; the film’s natural grain levels are preserved and any other apparent flaws appear to be entirely down to the stock materials, such as a slight shimmering, specks of dirt and colour fluctuations (small amounts of yellowing during the opening credits for example) across the ice-y landscape which was undoubtedly difficult to capture. Skin tones appear to be slightly oversaturated as there’s a general redness at times (even during interior shots), which isn’t particularly distracting if you look at it from the perspective being that it’s ruddy cold over there. Contrast and colour balance is perfectly fine though, and all in all this looks pretty great.
The Dolby sound mix is equally fine, enjoying the central channels with no drop outs or distortions. There’s little else to say on the matter, other than Bruce Smeaton’s score is lovingly handled, adding much emotional weight to the proceedings, while dialogue is perfectly clear.
Unfortunately there are no subtitles available for the feature, which is a shame as it deserves a much wider audience, but more importantly it’s an oversight that many companies still fail to respond to.
Iceman is one of the most criminally overlooked films of the past twenty years; Flopping immensely at the U.S. box-office and only seeing a straight to video release here in the UK, which never truly earned it the recognition it so rightly deserves. It’s a beautifully made piece of cinema that should have had a shoe-in at the 1985 Oscars, which notably saw Amadeus and The Killing Fields go head to head. Frankly I’m shocked that John Lone never received any nominations for his remarkable performance; nor Ian Baker for his splendid photography or Bruce Smeaton for his poignant score, not to mention John Drimmer’s intelligent and perfectly balanced script and Billy Weber – who went on to edit such eighties blockbusters as Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun, for which he did receive the top prize - for his wonderful editing. I mean what more does anyone else want from a film? For me Iceman is a picture that perfectly taps into our collective conscious, offering a seething tale of morality and equally heartfelt sentiments about what it is to be human.
Arrow’s DVD release isn’t too shabby at all, especially given its £13.99 rrp, but this film is crying out for a special edition. I would love to hear from Lone about how he tackled the role of Charlie and made him into one of the most memorable characters of that decade. Furthermore the special effects and set designs are simply stunning (how they achieved the landscape breaking apart at the end is beyond me). Perhaps one day we’ll see the film being revisited on HD or otherwise, but for now consider yourselves lucky that finally we can watch Iceman as it was meant be seen.
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