AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 69:413-414 (1986) Film Review Iceman ROBERT B.ECKHARDT Department of Anthropology and Graduate Program i n Genetics, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802 Produced by Panorama Studios. Distributed by Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., 60 Bethpage Road, Hicksville, New York. 16 mm, color, sound film rental, $500 101 minutes. Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion (Robert Burns 1786) How do others see us? Anthropologists are compassionate, technologically ignorant, and smell bad. That is the strong message sent by the movie Iceman. We all know that parts of such a stereotype are inappropriate for some of our colleagues, but only parts, and only for some anthropologists. The plot of the film is a straightforwardeven hackneyed-one for science fiction: time travel. Scientists working in the far north of the American continent find a glacial fragment containing biological remains that they thought were from a mammoth but which, on thawing, turned out to be a man . . . well, sort of. In a n operating room setting the evidence comes to light: a rawhide thong, a stone implement, then the creature itself-light skinned, shaggy haired, open mouthed, heavy browed. “We’ve found a (expletive deleted) neanderthal!” Since I am not a science fiction fan, my first reaction on seeing this film was to dismiss it as pretty thin st&. However, something has kept it in my mind over a period of months, perhaps partly the fact that over that span I have also been working on several papers dealing with what many physical anthropologists are wont to call the “neanderthal problem” (which is not a problem of neanderthals as much as it is a problem of anthropologists, as Loring Brace has often stressed). My considered judgment is still that Iceman is not great cinematic art; but the film is sort of a classic on the fate of the neanderthals. Let me develop the background to this suggestion. 0 1986 ALAN R. LISS, INC. On the surface the movie had science fiction’s usual reliance on situational phenomena, and consequently exhibits a n apparent lack of depth. The great visual impact of the eerily blue, glimmering glacial snowscapes of British Columbia and northern Canada help create this impression; impressive scenery often disguises a thin plot. The aura of superficiality was further fostered by a dialogue that consisted almost entirely of one line exchanges such as the ones that occurred during the early laboratory session for thawing the specimen: “How does he look?” “Compared to what?” and “What’s that funny smell?’ “It’s probably Shepherd (the anthropologist).” Another: “Just what does this mean to us?” “A Nobel prize.” The scientific crew responsible for these highly cerebrate exchanges includes a woman, a black, and a n anthropologist. Did these people fulfill a producer’s conception of appropriate representation for minorities-or could the group’s composition reflect a screenwriter’s sly parody of a cabinet official’s views of how to compose any committee? Interestingly enough, the role of comic relief among these scientific team members was not filled by the female scientist (who was represented as entirely competent, though perhaps a bit too stereotypically tough minded in what may have been overcompensation) or the black (who was portrayed in a rather straight and unselfconscious style), but by the anthropologist. 414 FILM REVIEW Can entertainment have come in such a full, gradual circle from the old Vaudeville days that now we have met Mr. Bones and he is us? There is a message of sorts here though, I think, one that we could miss only at our own peril. As I stated in the beginning, in this film’s portrayal anthropologists are compassionate, technologically ignorant, and smell bad. When entering the operating room where the star is being thawed, the anthropologist is dropping books and struggling with the glasses slipping down his nose, entirely earnest, utterly uninspiring. Shepherd does manage to keep the biomedical specialists from carving the neanderthal into bits for different specialists to work on, to keep him alive for study so “he could tell us how we evolved,” but Shepherd also later falls asleep while watching the subject, allowing the neanderthal to get loose until recaptured with the aid of a tranquilizer gun. Message: the generic anthropologist is more like Mr. Chips than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger or Lucky Jim of Double Helix fame. Is the intended implication that soft hearts are of necessity associated with soft heads, and the reverse? If so, the stereotype is a disturbing one. In any case, the film is thought provoking, and I recommend that it be seen by anthropologists and their students if at all possible. Perhaps I was discovering subtleties and allusions that were not intended by the filmmakers, but there were some indications of substance and thoughtfulness, or at least cleverness. For instance, the arctic setting could have been selected entirely because of the convenient life-suspending aspect of its low temperature, which would make it not. entirely implausible for a human to be preserved for 40 millenia. But within the realm of science fiction the far north has another, more symbolic significance. It was into just these wastes that another ambiguously human problem disappeared: the creature of Victor Frankenstein’s experiments. Now, out of the same thinly explored icy expanse comes a being that, reversing Frankenstein’s relationship, may have given rise to us. Within this general framework there are various other specific resemblances. While attempting to escape, the thawed neanderthal kills an innocent technician, entirely accidentally. Like Frankenstein’s creature the neanderthal iincongrously nicknamed Charlie) gives us an instance of a fully adult human mind confronting a confusing, previously unexperienced,environment (those who have not encountered Mary Shelley’s 1817 classic, or who have forgotten its details, should read or reread at least chapter 11 of Frankenstein). The neanderthal’s psychic experience is extremely stressful though ultimately manageable physically but not spiritually. Faced with a world that he can survive but not fathom, the neanderthal chooses to reject life and seek death, resuming a spiritual quest that he had begun tens of thousands of years before to ensure the survival of his group through his own sacrifice. The biomedical specialists pursue him to thwart this attempt, while our anthropologist (good Shepherd; is that a coincidence?) helps him to escape and t o succeed in meeting his death. The ending of the film, with its use of the usual cinematic conventions (such as the almost inevitable chase scene) made it easy to sort out the relative statuses of the protagonists. The biomedical boys, riding noisy snowmobiles, were (quite unsuccessfully) chasing Shepherd and Charlie across the snowfields. Our anthropologist, though a bit clumsy and even smelly about the laboratory, was a decent sort who put his professional obligations toward his subject ahead of other considerations that might have yielded greater personal gain. But the warmed-over neanderthal emerged beyond all doubt as the real hero. True, his speech lacked a few familiar vowels and his diction would have marked him out at either Oxford or Cambridge. Yes, he did make a few social gaffes (and one literal gaff, of that unfortunate technician). But he did come across as fully human, in life and even in death-leaving the impression that the fellow and his kind might have been marked more by distinction than extinction.