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Frozen in Time: 8 Movies That Made Their Mark With Thawed-Out Heroes

From Captain America to Jason Vorhees, there’s a surprising number of highly watchable movies based on human popsicles

Time travel just got a brine new bag! In the new Seth Rogen comedy American Pickle, he pulls double duty playing not only a 1920s immigrant who’s been preserved in pickling fluid for 100 years, but also his ennui-afflicted great grandson. Awakening in the modern world, Herschel Greenbaum seeks to rebuild his future and teach his descendant how to savor joy and preserve what matters.

This trailer has us looking back into cinema history for movies that offer a similar fish-out-of-water premise. American Pickle brings a salty spin to the standard trope, as the bread and butter of it tends to feature men preserved in blocks of ice, or artificial hibernation. Even with this conceit in common, though, frozen in time tales can go to radically different places. 

Here are eight examples that run the gamut from dystopian sci-fi, to earnest drama, goofy comedy, superhero adventure and interstellar slasher

Planet of the Apes (1968) 

Charlton Heston headlines this sci-fi classic as George Taylor, an astronaut whose 1972 space voyage goes horribly awry. He and his crew awake from deep hibernation to discover more than 2,006 years have passed. Worse yet, they crash land on a planet where evolved apes rule the world and regard the grunting human natives as pests. Taylor is horrified throughout his exploration of this topsy-turvy planet, where men are treated like beasts. Yet the greatest shock hits in the film’s iconic climax, where our hero realizes (spoiler alert, but come on, as if you don’t know this by now): This was Earth all along!  

Loosely based on Pierre Boulle’s novel of the same name, The Planet of the Apes was both cheered by critics and a hit at the box office. It also earned two Academy Award nominations (Best Costume Design, Best Score), as well as an honorary Oscar for John Chambers’ groundbreaking prosthetic makeup, which turned Maurice Evans and Roddy McDowall into incredible apes. The success of the film inspired a string of sequels, including Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). There were also two TV shows (one live-action, one animated), a star-studded 2001 reboot directed by Tim Burton and a prequel relaunch (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes) that explored how the apes overtook earth. 

Like this landmark film, this 2010s trilogy broke new ground in visual effects, blending motion-captured performances with computer graphics that made these “damned dirty apes” look photo-real. 

Iceman (1984) 

What might happen if a team of researchers uncovered a Neanderthal perfectly preserved in an eons-old glacier? That’s the premise of this somber drama. Timothy Hutton stars as an anthropologist elated to study the unthawed prehistoric man (John Lone). The two bond over lessons in language, rough-housing and an awkward sing-along of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” All is well, while this incredible discovery is housed in a zoo-like habitat that mimics his natural environment. But once the caveman gets loose, the modern world — with its photocopiers and helicopters — proves too much for him. While the rest of the science community wants to put him under a microscope, his anthropologist bestie plots to set him free. 

In the 1980s, there was a cluster of caveman movies, including the prehistoric fantasy adventure Quest for Fire, the Daryl-Hannah-fronted The Clan of the Cave Bear and the slapstick comedy Caveman, which co-starred Shelley Long, Dennis Quaid and Ringo Starr. Iceman rode this trend to critical success. It was praised for its realism, not so much in the likelihood of unearthing a living Neanderthal, but in its depiction of scientific experimentation. Lone was likewise heralded for a performance that — though made of mostly grunts — was heart-wrenching in its vulnerability and agony. Though not as well remembered as other films on this list, Iceman made enough of an impression to get a DVD release on its 20th anniversary. 

Encino Man (1992) 

This high-concept teen comedy follows a pair of high school misfits (Pauly Shore and Sean Austin) after they discover a caveman who’s spent ages frozen under the topsoil of L.A. One makeover montage and a little white lie about his origins, and Link (Brendan Fraser) is swiftly accepted by 1990s cool kids, who swoon over his exhibitionism, athleticism and timeless good looks. While his friends hope their defrosted bro will prove their missing link to achieving popularity, this prehistoric stud dances and romances, yet yearns for the cavewoman he left behind. Good thing Encino Man is a comedy, where happy endings are guaranteed, no matter how outlandish. 

A solid box office hit, Encino Man launched the movie careers of both Shore and Fraser. Over the next four years, Shore headlined such rowdy comedies as Son-in-Law, In The Army Now, Jury Duty and Bio-Dome. Fraser reprised the role of Link in a couple of these in uncredited cameos; however, as a leading man, he went on to headline dramas (With Honors, Gods and Monsters), live-action adaptations of cartoons (George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right), and the action-comedy franchise of The Mummy. Fraser also did the time warp again with the daffy 1999 rom-com Blast From the Past, playing a man raised in a bunker since 1967 who arises with the norms and culture of that time intact. Nowadays, he can be heard giving a hilarious and oft-frantic performance on the deeply strange DC superhero series Doom Patrol. And to think, none of this might have happened if it weren’t for Encino Man

Demolition Man (1993) 

Two titans of action movies, Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, face off in this sci-fi thriller about nemeses out of time. Their story begins in 1996, where LAPD Sergeant John Spartan (Stallone) tracks down dangerous kingpin Simon Phoenix (Snipes). A slew of civilians die in the fray, so both men are put on ice — literally. Cut to 2032, where each is unfrozen in a seemingly utopian society they barely recognize. Swearing is a crime. Sex has gone entirely virtual. Every restaurant is Taco Bell, and then there are those seashells to contend with. Spartan may hate the future, but he will fight for a better and bawdier tomorrow. To stop Phoenix from rising to new heights of mayhem, this demolition man will do whatever it takes to bring him down. 

Demolition Man was a smash hit at the box office, coming in #1 opening weekend and pulling in over $159 million worldwide. It spawned a comic book series, a video game and a 25th anniversary celebration at San Diego Comic-Con, complete with Taco Bell food. Earlier this year, Stallone promised fans a sequel is in the works. Yet looking back on the legacy of Demolition Man, it’s greatest impact on cinema might be launching Sandra Bullock. Sure, she’d appeared in a couple of comedies before playing the perky sidekick to Stallone’s hardened cop, but this leading role threw her on the path of action movies like Speed, The Net, Miss Congeniality and The Heat.  

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) 

Forget Bond (James Bond). The British secret agent who promises a good time is hands down the shag-happy spy Austin Powers (Mike Myers). This playful espionage parody begins in 1967, with British intelligence cryo-freezing their top agent so he might combat the nefarious Dr. Evil in an uncertain future. Thirty years later, Evil emerges, thus Powers returns, ready to bring back the free-loving vibe of the 1960s. Both hero and villain hit some snags in understanding the modern world and modern women, but Austin’s power to best Evil proves timeless. 

With its madcap humor and Myers’ buoyant bravado, Austin Powers became a sensation. It spawned hit sequels (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Austin Powers in Goldmember) studded with stars (Heather Graham, Beyoncé Knowles, Michael Caine, Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow). Its randy catchphrases inspired impressions ranging from competent to cringe-worthy, and it made Myers such a power player in Hollywood that no one stopped him from making the 2008 bomb The Love Guru, booed by audiences and critics alike. After taking some time out of the spotlight, Myers and Powers are poised to return with Austin Powers 4. Now in development, details on this espionage sequel are top secret.  

Jason X (2001)

Ten installments into the Friday The 13th franchise, it was time for a major change. Jason Voorhees had killed at Camp Crystal Lake, murdered in Manhattan and even gone to Hell. So the next destination had to be outer space. Taking the slasher genre to out-of-this-world new terrain, Jason X has a cryogenically frozen Voorhees awake in 2455 aboard a spaceship full of his favorite thing: horny teens ripe for slaughter. Sure, an ass-kicking android might slow him down, but some helpful nanobots retool this hockey-masked killer into a futuristic terror. 

Jason X took a big swing and struck out hard (sorry, I don’t have a suitable hockey metaphor). Pulling in a measly $16.9 million worldwide, it’s gone down as one of the worst performing Friday the 13th films. Critics decried it as laughable, predictable and not scary — however, over the years, the sci-fi spectacle and campy appeal of this strange slasher has earned it a defiant cult following. 

Idiocracy (2006) 

Following the success of the stoner cartoon Beavis and Butthead and workplace comedy Office Space, Mike Judge dipped into science-fiction to make an outlandish adventure about an insane American dystopia. Luke Wilson stars as an average American Joe, who agrees to be the subject of a suspended animation experiment. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years later to discover America has been overrun by anti-intellectualism and flat-out idiocy. Sports drinks have been spewed on crops, causing food shortages, dust bowls and economic crisis. Worse yet, the president is a bombastic, curse-slinging moron who came to politics from TV fame, specifically pro wrestling. Surrounded by dimwits, it’s up to Joe to save the world from deadly stupidity. 

Despite Judge’s previous hits, Idiocracy never got a wide release or much of a marketing push, so it was little surprise when it tanked at the box office, pulling in just $495,303. However, over the years, it’s been embraced by a cult following for its scathing satire of American culture, as well as its peculiar political prophecy: As reality-TV star Donald Trump began his presidential campaign for the 2016 election, critics began to point out similarities between the candidate and the film’s preposterous POTUS, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews).

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) / The Avengers (2012) 

The story of super soldier Steve Rogers begins during World War II, when he’s a Brooklyn boy looking to fight bullies no matter what the cost. One body-building science experiment later, he’s the beefy Captain America, who battles Tesseract-powered Nazis to the end of the road. However, at the end of his origin story, Cap nobly sacrifices himself, going down with his airship into the arctic. Almost 70 years pass before he’s unthawed, leaving this Greatest Generation hero feeling a bit old-school when he joins The Avengers. While he might prefer you watch your words (“Language”) and might miss some of Tony’s pop culture punchlines (“I understood that reference”), not even a time leap can throw this champ for a loop. 

Box-office-wise, Cap’s first outing falls among the lowest in the MCU rankings. However, The Avengers gave this patriot a new way to shine. From there, his solo sequels, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War made successively more bank. Thanks to Chris Evans’ radiant charisma and steely earnestness, these movies were a hit with critics and audiences, all of which gave this 79-year-old comic book hero a new life on the big screen.

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