Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic
I love a good survival movie. I thoroughly enjoyed movies like The Edge and Cast Away when I was a teen. In the past few years there have been a few good ones, too; in particular Gravity and All Is Lost. Man’s struggle to survive either in extreme conditions or on the edge of existence is enthralling to me. As such, I was very interested when I saw a poster and eventually a trailer for Arctic, starring Mads Mikkelsen.
Arctic places Mikkelsen‘s Overgård in the middle of a snowy nowhere, somewhere in the Arctic Circle, following him through his daily routine. His routine is set to the timer on his watch, and it quickly becomes apparent that he has been there for some time in a downed plane. He has a giant SOS message dug out of the snow and permafrost, fishing lines that he checks, and a daily hike that involves mapping his location and running a hand-cranked distress signal for a few minutes each day.
It also entails visiting a gravesite marked by a pile of stones that he cleans off each morning, indicating that he perhaps lost his wife or significant other in the crash. His background is only hinted at, but he has some expertise in wilderness survival. He also eyes a far-off mountain range with some trepidation, as though daily making a calculation in his head as to whether staying put is more risky than a journey.
That decision is seemingly made for him when a helicopter appears and crashes, killing one pilot and injuring another, a young woman (María Thelma Smáradóttir). With internal injuries, a head wound, and no sign of improvement, he makes the decision to venture from the safety of his plane and into the harsh environment.
Mikkelsen turns in what is perhaps his best performance as an actor. Similar to Redford in All Is Lost, dialogue is sparse, but what is expressed through his face and his actions tells the audience everything it needs to know. The film never falters in throwing obstacles in his way, be it an unmarked elevation on the map, the bitter cold, or a polar bear circling the periphery of all his actions. This entire movie is seemingly built upon Mikkelsen’s ability to look at a obstacle and fix his resolve to overcome it, whether he can or not, and even when he knows he probably cannot, like pulling the woman up a steep hill in a Sisyphean attempt to stay on the most straightforward path to their destination.
The polar bear sparks a palpable fear in Overgård, and provides the most intense scene of the film when there is the inevitable encounter. It’s a threat that lingers over much of the first half of the film when it is introduced, and the menace of the moment lives up to that threat when it arrives.
A few story beats, and especially the conclusion of the film, feel a bit too similar to All Is Lost, but the few points lost in originality are made up for in the overall quality of the final product. Arctic is a great survival film, and an impressive feature film debut by director Joe Penna. Mads Mikkelsen was the hook that caught my attention for this film, and he gives an outstanding physical performance.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars