Cryogenics (sometimes referred to as cryonics) is the science of freezing the human body in a suspended state and then reviving it at a later period. So far, cryogenics is a science that remains science-fiction. While there exists a number of cryogenic institutes in the real world that offer to freeze the human body, none have yet demonstrated the ability to revive a body at the other end of the process. The process of freezing tissue causes the water content to expand and destroys cellular matter and so it is unlikely in reality that a frozen body could be revived without damage. This has not stopped the popularity of the theme in science-fiction.
Cryogenics in Space Travel
Few films featuring cryogenic suspension are actually about the process itself. Mostly cryogenics is commonly seen as means for astronauts to endure lengthy space journeys in a story or are about the world the sleeper faces when awakened.
Astronauts frozen for lengthy space journeys can be seen in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979) and sequels, Galaxina (1980), Earth Star Voyager (1988), Supernova (2000), Prometheus Trap (2012), Interstellar (2014) and Doom: Annihilation (2019). All of these merely use cryogenic suspension as a method to deal with space travel in a realistic manner rather than use shortcuts like the invention of hyperspace, warp drives and wormholes. The cryogenic process does not form a major plot point in these films.
There are however a number of stories of what happens when the traveller awakes to find something very different to what they expect or that something has gone wrong. The most memorable of these was Planet of the Apes (1968) where the astronauts wake to find themselves crashlanded on an ape-ruled alien planet. Both Alien Cargo (1999) and Pandorum (2009) feature frozen shipmates woken to deal with a mission that has gone awry, while the sleepers in Pitch Black (2000) and A.E: Apocalypse Earth (2013) are woken when the ship crashes.
The sole variant on the theme where the cryogenic process is an integral part of the story is Passengers (2016), which does clever things with the story of Chris Pratt prematurely woken from hibernation on a ship of sleepers who decides to awaken fellow sleeper Jennifer Lawrence for the sake of companionship.
Other works like the Doctor Who episode The Ark in Space (1974) and the films Dead Fire (1996) and Air (2015) feature humanity preserved aboard space stations and in bunkers as a means of waiting for a devastated Earth to return to something habitable. The Doctor Who episodeThe Ark (1966) has most of humanity preserved aboard a lengthy ship journey to relocate on a new world.
The cryogenic space traveller were played for comedy in Dark Star (1974) with the fatally wounded captain kept alive on ice where he is periodically thawed out to provide not entirely coherent advice.
When the Sleeper Awakes Stories
The other common theme in cryogenics is the story where a frozen person is woken in the present or the future where they have to face a very unfamiliar world. H.G. Wells set down the trope in his novel The Sleeper Awakes (1899) with a man woken to find a radically different future to the world he left behind.
The very first sleeper awakes in the future film was Just Imagine (1930), which plays as a comedy variation on the Wells story where a man struck by lightning in the present is revived in the absurdist future of 1980.
The most famous man out of time is Buck Rogers, a man from the present who is revived in the 25th Century where he undergoes a series of space opera adventures. These can be seen in the serial Buck Rogers (1939), the film Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) and the ensuing tv series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981). In the original stories and comic-book, Buck is preserved by a radioactive gas in a mine; in the serial, it is by a gas after crashing a dirigible in the Arctic; and in the 1979 film, he is a space shuttle pilot who is frozen in the head of a comet.
The Gene Roddenberry tv pilot Genesis II (1973) and sequels Planet Earth (1974) and Strange New World (1975) is a variant on Buck Rogers featuring a 20th Century man woken in a post-holocaust future where he must work with a scientific enclave to reunite the disparate societies. Other films such as the aforementioned Planet of the Apes, Gandahar/Light Years (1988), Blue Remains (2000), Underworld: Awakening (2012) and Oblivion (2013) feature people waking in changed or devastated futures.
The Sleeper Awakes story was wittily parodied in the Woody Allen film Sleeper (1973) where Allen plays a contemporary nebbish who is woken in the future; Demolition Man (1993) with Sylvester Stallone as a present-day cop woken in a future overrun by Political Correctness; Idiocracy (2006) where an average man from the present wakes to find he is now the most intelligent man in the world; and the tv series Futurama (1999-2013), which spoofs the Buck Rogers-type story with an ordinary everyday schlep awakened to an equally everyday life in the future.
Two variants that create more substantial stories are Crypt (1977), an episode of tv’s Logan’s Run in which we have a shelter of six cryogenically sleepers left to rebuild the world who are awoken before the discovery that one among their number is a murderer, and the film Air (2015) where two technicians tending a frozen populace are woken only to find one of their cryogenic chambers is broken and one of them must choose to die when their limited air supply runs out.
Also of interest are two works about cryogenic sleepers that take part of stories where the protagonist cannot be certain what is real. The Spanish Open Your Eyes (1997) and its English-language remake Vanilla Sky (2001) have protagonists suffering baffling reality disjunctions before the revelation they are in faulty Virtual Reality simulations while cryogenically preserved. Final (2001) has Denis Leary as a patient in a hospital where a psychiatrist tries to argue against his persistent belief that he has been cryogenically awoken in the future.
Sleepers Awake in the Present
The majority of Sleeper Awakes stories have people from the past awakened in the present. The very first cryogenic film of all was The Man from Beyond (1922) starring Harry Houdini as a man who awakens after being frozen for a hundred years.
The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987), Vampirella (1996), Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (1997) and Matthew Blackheart (2002) feature heroes of yesteryear awoken in the present to continue their adventures. The tv series Adam Adamant Lives (1966-7) features a Victorian adventurer thawed out for a series of adventures in the present-day.
The most famous of these heroes is Marvel’s Captain America, a physically enhanced superhero from the 1940s revived in the present after being frozen in ice. His origin story is told in Captain America (1990), Ultimate Avengers (2006) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
In most of these cases, the cryogenic process is merely an opportunity for the hero to continue on their adventures. The culture clash the awoken sleeper would face is dealt with more substantially in Late for Dinner (1991) and Forever Young (1992), which have characters from respectively the 1960s and 1940s waking up in a changed present.
Criminals on Ice
Some stories posit the idea of keeping criminals on ice as a form of punishment – although this is an idea that it seems hard to believe a society would accept ie. the idea of criminals waking in 25 years still in the height of their youth when their victims are aged. Nevertheless it continues to be seen as a popular method of punishment in films such as Project: Shadowchaser (1992), Demolition Man, Immortal (ad vitam) (2004), Transmorphers (2007), Lockout (2012) and the tv series Snowpiercer (2020- ).
A variant on this is one where criminals who have been placed in suspension are unwittingly woken in the future to wreak mayhem again. The classic version of this was the Star Trek episode Space Seed (1966) where the genetic superman Khan Noonian Singh is awoken aboard The Enterprise. The theme has also appeared in the Space: 1999 episodes The Exiles (1976) and The Mark of Archanon (1976), the Blake’s 7 episode Time Squad (1978) and the film Jason X (2001).
Plans are made to revive a frozen Adolf Hitler in The Eagle’s Nest (1976) episode of The New Avengers. Cryogenically frozen Nazis appear in Nick Fury, Agent of Shield (1998) and Yoga Hosers (2016), while cryogenically frozen Soviet agents appear in The New Avengers two-part episode K is for Kill (1977) and the film Ice Soldiers (2013). The Doctor Who episode The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) features the uncovering of a crypt of frozen Cybermen on an alien planet, while the episode The Ice Warriors (1967) has the unthawing of Martian Ice Warriors that have remained frozen in a glacier since the last Ice Age.
In The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Han Solo is placed on ice simply as a handy means to transport him to collect a bounty on his head. In the realm of the completely ridiculous, Hologram Man (1995) features criminals stored in stasis as holograms.
The Batman mythos features the novelty of a super-villain Mr Freeze whose motif is freezing things – he has sub-zero temperature and is obsessed with finding a means of returning his frozen wife to life. Portrayals of Mr Freeze can be found in Batman & Robin (1997), Batman and Mr Freeze: SubZero (1997) and in tv’s Batman (1992-4) and Gotham (2014-8).
Baron Frankenstein is engaged in cryogenic experiments in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) and revives his monster after it is frozen in a glacier in The Evil of Frankenstein. The Cold episode of the H.P. Lovecraft anthology Necronomicon (1993) features a scientist who has discovered a process of slowing aging by freezing his body.
The Twilight Zone episode The Rip Van Winkle Caper (1961) concerns criminals escaped with a stash of gold who place themselves into suspended animation only to wake in a future where their gold is useless.
Suspended Animation in Fantasy
Many stories replace the cryogenic process with the individual simply falling into a glacier, a spell being cast or some equivalent. There are a number of magical processes commonly used such as the story of Rip Van Winkle (which has yet to be filmed) about a man who simply falls asleep for twenty years or Snow White being preserved in a lifelike state after eating the poisoned apple.
The most famous of these is the fairytale Sleeping Beauty where Beauty pricking her finger on a spinning wheel enacts a magic spell that puts an entire kingdom to sleep as in Sleeping Beauty (1959), Sleeping Beauty (1988) and Sleeping Beauty (2014).
Also popular are films dealing with dinosaurs and cavemen thawed out in the present day after being frozen in ice. The progenitor of the theme was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) with a dinosaur frozen in Arctic ice being revived by atomic tests and going on to rampage again.
The same idea of dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters being unfrozen in the present appears in other films of the era such as The Deadly Mantis (1957), Dinosaurus! (1960) and Reptilicus (1961). The unfrozen caveman appeared in Dinosaurus! and the serious Iceman (1984) and was played for comedy in the inane film Encino Man (1992) and the animated tv series Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-80) where one such unfrozen caveman joined an all-girl investigatory team.
The Thaw (2009) deals with an unfrozen mammoth that unleashes a deadly horde of prehistoric flesh-eating insects. These are covered in more detail under the theme Prehistoric Revival.
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
- Sleeper (1973)
- Iceman (1984)
- Late for Dinner (1991)
- Demolition Man (1993)
- Open Your Eyes (1997)
- Futurama (tv series, 1999-2013)
- Air (2015)
- Passengers (2016)
A full list of titles can be found here Cryogenics and Suspended Animation Archives